Peace talks in balance as crackdown on terror proceeds

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JERUSALEM — More than at any other time since the Palestinians launched self-rule 22 months ago, this week's terror attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv threatened to bring the Israeli-Palestinian peace process grinding to a halt.

Responding to the wave of terror that claimed about 60 innocents and wounded more than 200 others, Prime Minister Shimon Peres linked an Israeli redeployment in the West Bank town of Hebron scheduled for later this month to a demand that PLO officials revoke portions of their charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

The redeployment, which in the past had been linked to the Palestinian leadership's ability to combat terror, "will be examined in light of Palestinian fulfillment of obligations," Peres told reporters.

Reacting almost immediately to the bombings, Palestinian security officials arrested Mohammed Abu Wardeh, 21, a second-year student at the Ramallah Teachers Training College, who security officials said was the "mastermind" behind the four suicide bombings of the past two weeks.

In a hasty trial Tuesday night, a court in the West Bank Jericho enclave sentenced the Ramallah resident to life in prison with hard labor on charges of recruiting three of the four suicide bombers. The swift sentencing, approved by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was apparently handed down in an effort to stave off an extradition request by Israeli authorities.

Palestinian police said Abu Wardeh recruited the suicide bombers responsible for carrying out the Feb. 25 attacks in Jerusalem and Ashkelon in addition to Sunday's attack in Jerusalem. Israel Television reported that Abu Wardeh acted under the instructions of handlers based in Damascus.

A fourth bomber who carried out an attack Monday in Tel Aviv reportedly was from the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials arrested an unidentified Israeli Arab whom they accused of smuggling the Tel Aviv bomber from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The suspect claimed that he did not know what his Palestinian passenger was planning to do.

Arafat, who issued a condemnation of the Jerusalem attack from his headquarters in Gaza, also announced that he had outlawed the military wings of Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces Tuesday sealed up Hebron's Islamic College and closed five other institutions affiliated with the fundamentalist group Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for the four terror bombings.

Accompanied by Palestinian police in some of the raids, Israeli forces also arrested dozens of activists in Nablus and in West Bank refugee camps.

As part of its own crackdown on Hamas, Palestinian security forces raided the Islamic University in Gaza, a hotbed of fundamentalist activity.

Israeli security forces adopted punitive measures Tuesday against the families of suicide bombers, sealing the homes of 11 terrorists, including that of Yehiya Ayash, who was killed in an explosion in Gaza in January.

In addition to the closure already imposed on the territories after the Feb. 25 suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon, Israeli officials began taking additional steps to control traffic into Israel from the territories.

Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, head of the Israel Defense Force's Central Command, announced the imposition of a closure on some 460 Palestinian villages in the West Bank.

He said that some 1.2 million Palestinians were effectively under restrictive orders.

In a move directed at Israeli employers of low-paid Palestinian laborers, Biran also announced that Israelis would be prohibited from driving Palestinians into Israel in their own vehicles, and that the Egged and Dan bus cooperatives were barred from transporting any Palestinians into Israel.

Police also launched a campaign to identify and arrest Israelis found to be illegally employing Palestinians in their homes.

At an emergency session Monday, the Israeli Cabinet decided to create a new anti-terror command to combat Islamic extremists.

The command will be headed by Ami Ayalon, the newly appointed head of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency, and will include top army and intelligence officials.

The decision to create the command was accompanied by a Cabinet resolution that claimed that Israel had the right to enter Palestinian self-rule areas to round up militants.

The Cabinet meeting, the second held this week, was prompted by two days of terror attacks launched by the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement.

Israel was still mourning its dead from an attack Sunday on a Jerusalem bus that left at least 19 dead, including the bomber, and at least 10 wounded, when a blast Monday in Tel Aviv sent shock waves throughout the nation.

Shortly before 4 p.m., a suicide bomber struck at Dizengoff Center, the main shopping mall in the heart of Tel Aviv, which was crowded with hundreds of people preparing for the Purim holiday.

The Hamas terrorist claimed at least 13 victims and left at least 130 wounded.

After the attack, Hamas identified the suicide bomber as Saleh Abdul Rahim, 24, a resident of the West Bank town of Ramallah, which was turned over to Palestinian self-rule in late December.

This week's attacks drew widespread condemnation from world leaders, including President Clinton. The U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning "these vile acts of terrorism" taking place this week in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Sunday's blast in Jerusalem was an eerie repetition of a Feb. 25 suicide bus-bombing near the city's central bus station, in which 26 people, including the bomber, were killed. Two young Americans were among the dead.

The two Jerusalem bombings took place at almost the same time a week apart and targeted the same bus route.

Within hours after Sunday's bombing in Jerusalem, the Israeli Cabinet voted to implement a plan to separate the Israeli and Palestinian populations.

The decision to invest in separating Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip came as the Peres government vowed to root out the terrorist cells and destroy them.

"We have decided to give the war on terror top priority," Peres said. "We will use every means and will not be deterred."

Two hours after Monday's attack in Tel Aviv, an anonymous caller phoned Israel Radio to say that the bombing there came in response to Sunday's statements by Peres declaring all-out war against Hamas.

The caller warned that if the Peres government took measures against Hamas, the organization would hit back hard at the Jewish population.

The separation plan adopted by the Cabinet on Sunday includes constructing a perimeter fence along the line between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza and creating 18 crossing points to monitor travel between the two areas.

Peres said $100 million had been allocated for the separation plan.

In addition, the Cabinet approved the creation of a special force of 800 security guards to protect public buses.

A plan to deploy additional police and security reinforcements in Jerusalem, also approved by the Cabinet, "has already begun," Peres told reporters. "We will fill this city with the security forces needed to ensure its security."

Police and soldiers also will be stationed at bus stops and hitchhiking stops throughout the country to check passengers, the prime minister said.

Peace negotiations with the Palestinians, suspended after the twin attacks, will not resume until Arafat takes sufficient measures against the fundamentalist groups, Peres told the Cabinet on Sunday.