Palestinian cabinet pledges to rein in militants after blast

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian cabinet voted unanimously last night to crack down against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which jointly claimed responsibility for Tuesday night's Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 20 religious Jews and wounded more than 100.

After an emergency meeting in Gaza, a senior official told The Independent that a "protracted campaign of political, security and operational measures" had been ordered against the two groups.

"The Palestinian Authority will not allow any faction or individual to harm our cause as they did on Tuesday. That was totally unacceptable. We aim to ensure that these movements no longer have the capacity to do so." The official declined to specify what those measures would be, but earlier yesterday Mohammed Dahlan, the Internal Security Minister, ordered his commanders to prepare to crack down on the militant groups. Mr Dahlan is understood to have proposed widescale arrests of militants, banning of Islamist newspapers and sealing bank accounts. If the cabinet is in earnest, it makes it less likely that Israel will retaliate on any significant scale for the time being.

Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, condemned the attack, which he said "cannot serve the interests of the Palestinian people". News of the atrocity reached him during a meeting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza.

The Palestinian cabinet convenedwithout Yasser Arafat, the President, whom the Israelis accuse of sabotaging Abu Mazen's peace diplomacy. Abu Mazen was insisting on making the decisions, thus putting his own future on the line.

In a statement earlier, Mr Dahlansaid the measures had to be taken to "avert any catastrophic reaction by the Israeli government and to prevent the kind of dangers that are posed [by the militants] to the Palestinian cause and to the security of our homeland and our people".

But Mr Dahlan also blamed Israel for the latest rise in violence, accusing it of "repeated violations" of the truce that was unilaterally declared by the Palestinian militias on 29 June. His frustration showed. Mr Dahlan has been the chief negotiator with the Israelis, establishing a fruitful dialogue with Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister. The bus bombing was as much a blow to him as it was to Israel.

His statement added that Israel's violations "cannot justify what happened in Jerusalem on Tuesday, especially when we were on the verge of sealing a deal with Israel on the handover of four Palestinian cities in the West Bank and of solving the issue of the Palestinian fugitives and those considered wanted by Israel".

Israel, however, made clear yesterday that it would not be satisfied with words. Abu Mazen, who preferred to persuade the militants rather than risk a civil war by coercing them, had exhausted his credit. Israeli officials said they reserved the option of retaliating for the Jerusalem attack, though not apparently on a massive scale such as Operation Defensive Shield, the invasion of Jenin and other West Bank cities last year after a suicide bomber killed 30 Jews celebrating Passover at a hotel in the resort of Netanya.

The immediate response of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, was to freeze all contacts with the Palestinian Authority; to impose a total closure on Palestinian workers and businessmen entering Israel, and to tighten the siege on West Bank cities. The agreement to pull out of Jericho and Qalqilya this week and Tulkarem and Ramallah next week was cancelled and officials made clear that no more prisoners would go free.

Israeli officials stressed that the government was still committed to the international road-map for the longer term. "We will always look for avenues for reaching peace," said Daniel Seaman, a government spokesman. "But until the Palestinians act there cannot be any movement."

Ehud Olmert, the Deputy Prime Minister, said after the bombing: "There is no option but to immediately use an iron fist. If the Palestinian Authority is capable of doing that, it has to prove it."

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said that the Palestinians must act to dismantle terrorist organisations. He added: "Israel has a right to defend itself. This was a vicious attack on innocent civilians. But it's important for all the parties to continue talking about the way forward."