Hopes of peace are threatened by murder of Israeli minister

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The Independent Online

Israel froze all contacts with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority last night as the first assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister by Palestinian guerrillas threatened to demolish urgent international efforts to bring calm to the Middle East.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, vowed to launch a "war to the finish" against "terrorists", a development that jeopardises a drive led by America and Britain to cool the Israel-Palestinian conflict during the war in Afghanistan.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical nationalist faction, said it killed Rechavam Zeevi, a 75-year-old retired army general and hardline leader of a marginal far-right parliamentary group who advocated the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories. He was shot in the Hyatt Hotel in Arab east Jerusalem early yesterday.

The PFLP said the shooting was in revenge for the assassination of its leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, in August.

Zeevi was due to resign as Tourism Minister because he felt his government was too lenient towards Mr Arafat.

Israel ­ which, to the annoyance of America, resumed its assassinations policy on Sunday by killing a Hamas militant ­ retaliated by reimposing a clamp-down on the occupied territories, which it claimed to have eased this week as part of a ceasefire deal.

Israel's Channel Two television said that the Israeli cabinet, which was meeting last night, was planning to prevent Mr Arafat from visiting world capitals in search of support, by closing the Palestinians' airport in the Gaza Strip.

A spokesman for President Bush condemned the killing in the "strongest terms", describing it as a "despicable act" ­ words that will please Mr Sharon, who seized on yesterday's events to draw more parallels between Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and America's war on terror.

A spokesman for Tony Blair said the killing underlined "the need to get the peace process moving again".

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority denounced the assassination, but Mr Sharon made clear that he considered Mr Arafat to be the culprit, for failing to contain guerrilla attacks on Israelis.