Palestinian leaders reacted with anger last night to the Israeli security cabinet's decision, in principle, to expel Yasser Arafat from his headquarters in Ramallah.
As the Palestinian Authority President told a crowd of supporters outside his Maqata site that they were the people who could stop the Israelis fulfilling the threat, Ahmed Qureia, the incoming Palestinian prime minister, said the decision was "crazy".
Despite doubts even among some Israeli government officials over whether the decision would be enforced, the threat introduces a volatile element into Israel's political and security crisis.
Mr Qureia, whom Israel is counting on to rein in the militants, saidthe decision was "adventurist. It will have very grave consequences. It will destroy all possibilities and all chances. The implementation of this decision will not only explode the Palestinian territories but the entire region," said Mr Qureia, popularly known as Abu Ala. "I appeal to all rational people in the world to start moving against this dangerous decision."
Earlier, Mr Arafat had told reporters in Ramallah: "This is terra sancta. No one can kick me out. They can kill me. They have bombs."
The Israeli Cabinet stopped short of setting a date for expulsion, but the army increased the psychological pressure on Mr Arafat by commandeering the top floor of the Authority's Culture Ministry overlooking his headquarters in the Maqata police compound.
The move was the most dramatic so far in the Israeli government's campaign to persuade the Authority to clamp down on militant factions, and came in response to the double suicide bombing that killed 15 people on Tuesday night.
Israeli sources indicated that implementation of the expulsion threat would depend on whether militant attacks continued and whether the new Palestinian government went further than the previous one in detaining and disarming militants in the occupied territories. The security cabinet's decision means in theory the full Cabinet will not have to meet on this issue if the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, decides to implement the threat. The decision fell short of demands by some ministers unconditionally to expel Mr Arafat. Israel regards him as the main obstacle to clamping down on Hamas and other groups.
But the statement was unequivocal in authorising the Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, to use "increased activity" by the army "against the terrorist organisations" and adds: "The Cabinet further directs that the necessary means for the foregoing be put at the disposal of the security forces."
This means there may be fresh ground incursions into Gaza and the West Bank.
It also declared that "the Israeli government rejects any idea of a ceasefire as a way of dealing with terror; terror will stop only after the terrorist organisations have been dismantled and liquidated. This is the obligation of the Palestinian Authority and it will be judged solely by its actions and results, not by its statements."
Mr Sharon, who returned to Israel yesterday after cutting short his trip to India, was under pressure to sanction Mr Arafat's expulsion despite signals that the Bush administration would regard such a move as counter-productive.
Before Tuesday's suicide bombings, which killed eight soldiers at a bus stop near Tel Aviv and seven civilians at a popular café in Jerusalem, some senior army officers were reported to have opposed the expulsion. This was partly because it might not be achievable peacefully and that any injury to Mr Arafat would provoke fury from Palestinians. But Mr Shalom claimed that there was now a "majority in favour, even among defence officials who opposed it in the past".
Ehud Olmert, the Deputy Prime Minister, suggested that the "solitary confinement" of Mr Arafat might be a better short-term option. This would involve denying him the right to receive visitors and cutting his telephone links. Senior government sources had indicated after Tuesday's bombings that this might be preferable.
Meanwhile, Mr Qureia delayed a meeting of the Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament, due to approve his new Cabinet because the Israelis did not furnish travel permits to some members.
Funerals were also held for the victims of Tuesday's bombings including one of an Arab waiter at Jerusalem's Café Hillel, Shafik Kerem, 27. Mr Kerem, a Christian from Beit Hanina in the West Bank, started work only a month ago.
The Israeli army yesterday demolished 15 houses in south Gaza, which they said had been used as bases for shooting at Israeli strongpoints.Reuse content