Israeli officials threaten to kill other Arab leaders

Arafat, Hezbollah chief could be on target list along with Hamas' Yassin

March 24, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Undaunted by international protests over the assassination of the founder of Hamas, Israeli officials threatened yesterday to kill the entire leadership of the militant group and possibly other Arab leaders as well.

Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, answering questions at a Tel Aviv conference on low-intensity warfare, suggested that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, could be on the military's target list.

Arafat and Nasrallah expressed concern for their safety after the assassination Monday of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' founder and spiritual leader. Asked if their fears were justified, Yaalon said: "I think that their responses yesterday show that they understand that it is nearing them."

Palestinian officials called the remarks irresponsible, saying they only worsen the chaotic situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where a general strike has closed schools and shops and left militants in control of the streets.

Many senior Israeli military and intelligence officials agree that the assassination of Yassin has roiled an already unstable environment but insist that his death will eventually help restore order.

"Even if in the short term the assassination increases the motivation to carry out terror attacks, in the long run the assassination is likely to calm the situation and encourage moderate forces to prevent the founding of `Hamas-land,'" Yaalon said.

Yaalon, who has twice been reprimanded for speaking out and criticizing political leaders, did not elaborate on his statements.

Israel's Cabinet has authorized the army to "remove" Arafat at the time and means of its choosing. An army spokesman said there no plans to kill Arafat or Nasrallah.

Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told reporters yesterday that anyone "leading a terror group knows there is no immunity. Everyone is in our sights." Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that killing Yassin and others "will bring more security to Israeli citizens."

Hamas, meanwhile, chose as its new leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a 54-year-old pediatrician who is considered a hard-liner and opposes any truce with Israel. Rantisi was imprisoned by Israel for seven years and expelled to Lebanon in 1992. He was jailed by Arafat's Palestinian Authority in the late 1990s.

Israeli opinion polls found that a majority of those questioned supported the killing of Yassin, even though they agreed that retaliatory attacks were likely. Several newspaper columnists were among the few critical voices.

Nahum Barnea, writing in Yediot Ahronot, said Israel's assassination policy has evolved from the "awful frustration of the government, which stands helpless in the face of endless terror. It knows that the assassinations will not curb terror, but it has no other method."

The assassination of Yassin came as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has talked of withdrawing troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Since Sharon made that announcement last month, both sides have intensified their attacks.

Early this morning, Israeli tanks entered the Palestinian refugee camp next to the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported. The Israeli military said the incursion was a limited operation aimed at clearing an area used by militants for firing at Israeli forces and settlements. No casualties were reported.

Israeli commanders, who want to leave Gaza on their terms, say that eradicating militant groups paves the way for a withdrawal. The Palestinians want to be seen as forcing Israel out.

Talk of an Israeli withdrawal has intensified the power struggle among militant Palestinian factions such as the Islamic group Hamas and the secular Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, as well as between rival police agencies.

Egyptian and British law enforcement officials were busy setting up training centers in Gaza last week in an attempt to restore order and renew peace talks. But Palestinian leaders said the killing of Yassin has rendered police forces powerless.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority is no longer capable of imposing order in Gaza. Should a police officer try to arrest a member of Hamas, he said, "I think everyone in Gaza would turn against the policeman."

"With so much chaos, this will be Sharon's pretext for not doing anything as far as the peace process," Erekat said. "We all know that at the end of the day here, things go from bad to worse."

The Palestinian Authority cannot compete with the outpouring of support seen at Yassin's funeral, which served as a referendum on Palestinian politics. While Arafat embodies the nationalistic inspirations of a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, Yassin represented the notion that the only way to achieve Palestinian statehood was to destroy Israel.

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