Israel puts ring of steel around the Palestinians

Middle East crisis: Military cracks down hard in bid to snuff out local support for Hamas and its suicide bombers
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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

Israel has imposed a curfew on the 800,000 Palestinians who live in the 465 villages of the West Bank, tighter than anything seen since the Gulf war. "No one goes in and no one goes out," said Major-General Ilan Biran, the Israeli military commander for the area, adding that all males would be arrested "without mercy, in any village and town where we suspect there are terrorists".

The Israeli army has also sealed off Jericho, Gaza and the six Palestinian cities on the West Bank which came under the authority of Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, in December. Traffic is banned, supplies of food and gas are cut and children cannot get to school.

Maj-Gen Biran said: "Every potential suicide bomber and his family must know that his house will be destroyed and their communities will be punished." Mass deportation of Hamas members and their sympathisers is being considered, an Israel tactic in the past. Abu Dis College, considered a Hamas bastion, near Jerusalem, has been closed by troops.

Israel aims to pressure the Palestinians sufficiently to create a backlash against Hamas. Its forces are closing Islamic institutions alleged to have links with Hamas, from which came the suicide bombers who have killed 57 Israelis in two weeks. Israel is also to destroy the houses of people associated with the bombers. Shimon Shitrit, the Minister of Religious Affairs, has recommended bulldozing their villages.

Benyamin Ben Eliezer, Minister of Housing, said yesterday: "We intend to hit all the leaders of Hamas." If this means assassinations, like that of Yahyah Ayyash, the Hamas master bomb-maker, in January, Hamas is likely to hit back with more suicide attacks.

Israeli actions and the deployment of troops in the West Bank and Jerusalem have paralysed Palestinian economic activity. Some 60,000 Palestinians who work in Israel have to stay at home. Hotels in Palestinian districts of east Jerusalem were yesterday handing out notices saying that they could only serve buffet lunches because their workers from the West Bank could not enter the city.

As well as trying to force Palestinians to reject Hamas, Israel aims to put pressure on Mr Arafat to arrest Hamas leaders where he is in control. Israeli leaders have threatened that if he does not eliminate the infrastructure of Hamas they will do it for him. His security forces have now arrested some 400 Hamas members and yesterday raided the Islamic University in Gaza, long a Hamas stronghold. A Palestinian court yesterday gave a life sentence to a man who confessed to recruiting three suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, an Israeli Arab truck driver has been accused of smuggling into Israel from Gaza the suicide bomber who killed 13 people in Tel Aviv on Monday. Israeli radio said an Islamic militant group paid him $1,100 (pounds 730) to take the bomber past border guards by hiding him in a bag. He dropped him off at Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Centre shopping mall one minute before the explosion occurred. The driver was arrested shortly after the attack. "He is in his forties and has a family. I cannot believe it," a resident of his village in northern Israel said. "He travels to Gaza daily. He brings scrap metal from there." Israel has some 900,000 Arab citizens.

The Israelis are soon to start installing the first consignments of bomb- detecting equipment donated by the US.

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