Israel vows to continue policy of assassinations

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Ariel Sharon's inner cabinet dismissed American and British strictures yesterday and reaffirmed that it would continue to order the assassination of Palestinians it accuses of planning or executing terror attacks on Israelis.

Senior ministers met for five hours in Jerusalem while Palestinians were burying the eight victims, who included two Hamas leaders and two children, killed by a helicopter strike in the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday.

Tens of thousands of mourners marched in fury behind the bodies, which were draped in green Islamic flags. Young men in black masks fired rifles in the air and chanted threats to blow up Dizengoff, the Oxford Street of Tel Aviv. Women and children screamed and wept as they swarmed around the stretchers bearing the latest "martyrs" to their graves.

Earlier, a mob tried to break into the Nablus prison where three Palestinians were taken after being hastily sentenced to death on Tuesday night for collaborating with Israeli intelligence. The Palestinian Authority leader, Yasser Arafat, is under intense pressure to confirm the sentences.

The United States condemned the helicopter raid as "excessive, reprehensible and provocative", predicting that it would lead to disaster. Britain branded it "wrong and illegal under international law". But Mr Sharon's government remained defiant.

Yarden Vatikai, a Defence Ministry spokesman, said: "Israel will do everything necessary to defend itself. It is the Palestinians who have to change their policy of terror and violence. The sovereign government of Israel alone is responsible for protecting its citizens. And those citizens are subject to a wave of terror attacks, which we see every day."

Police imposed a maximum alert on Jerusalem after a pipe bomb exploded yesterday morning in a car park near the King David Hotel. No one was injured, but Israel is braced for the bloodcurdling retaliation that Hamas leaders promised for what Mr Sharon celebrated as "one of our greatest successes". Israel blamed its two principal targets, Jamal Mansour and Jamal Salim, for 10 bombings since last November, which killed 37 Israelis and wounded 376. Mansour, the most senior Hamas political leader on the West Bank, was said to have masterminded the suicide operation that killed 21 young Israelis in a Tel Aviv disco two months ago.

His murder is seen here as a calculated escalation. Mansour is the first high-profile public figure to have been hit since November last year. Ze'ev Schiff, the Ha'aretz newspaper's defence analyst, wrote yesterday: "From now on, the army will be authorised to attack more targets that are identified as the operational heads of the snake." The message, wrote the tabloid Ma'ariv, is that no one is immune.

Nevertheless, the campaign of "targeted liquidations" was severely criticised by the left-wing opposition and by several influential commentators. Yossi Sarid, leader of the liberal Meretz party, warned: "It is time to stop at the edge of the precipice. One more small step and we will fall, both Israelis and Palestinians. When we assassinate a terrorist, we create 10 new terrorists in his stead."

Jerusalem police are now receiving 700 calls a day from nervous residents reporting suspicious objects and cars in the city, up from 250 daily calls before the violence began 10 months ago, said a police spokesman, Shmuel Ben-Ruby.

Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister and architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accord that formed a breakthrough with the Palestinians, said: "The killing of the two children has worsened the conflict and has even weakened our sense of security. It is the government's duty to resume negotiations and stop the fire."

Roni Shaked, who covers the West Bank for Yediot Aharonot, said: "Every assassination levies a price in revenge, and we are the ones who pay it." Hemi Shalev, Ma'ariv's political analyst, said: "Our assassination policy incites the Palestinian street, forces escalation on Arafat, increases support for Hamas and recruits dozens of potential martyrs to its ranks."