Peres: Territories will stay shut while terrorists remain at large

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JERUSALEM — Israel will maintain its closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip indefinitely, reflecting the seriousness with which the government is considering a permanent separation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres told his Cabinet on Sunday that the continuing closure would be linked to the Palestinian Authority's ability to capture the leaders of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.

But at the same time, Peres called on the international community to provide financial aid to the Palestinians, signaling that Israel is not solely responsible for the well-being of the Palestinian people.

The closure, which has kept some 60,000 Palestinian laborers from their jobs in Israel, was imposed on

Feb. 25.

The action came after the first of four Hamas suicide bombings over a nine-day period killed scores of Israelis.

The bombings prompted Israeli officials to reconsider the separation concept.

Last year, the Cabinet rejected a plan to build a fence between Israel and the West Bank as too costly. But in talks with American officials here last week, Israel reportedly secured U.S. aid to construct the high-tech barrier.

Palestinian officials have complained that the closure has led to severe shortages of food and other essential supplies.

They also blamed at least three deaths last week on the closure, saying that Israeli roadblocks had prevented Palestinians from receiving timely medical attention.

After Sunday's Cabinet meeting, several ministers said that even though the closure would remain in effect, food shipments would be allowed into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and that exceptions would be made for humanitarian reasons, such as medical emergencies.

Last Friday, Israel lifted a separate blockade — on Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank — that it had imposed in the aftermath of the suicide bombings.

Meanwhile, Palestinian police announced Sunday that they had arrested a 21-year-old Islamic Jihad activist who had planned to carry out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.

But Israeli officials said key terrorist leaders remained at large, including Mohammed Deif, a Hamas activist believed to have been behind the recent wave of suicide bombings.

Peres told the Cabinet that until these leaders were captured, Israel would not begin its redeployment from the West Bank town of Hebron, a move scheduled to take place later this month.

As part of its war on Hamas, Israeli police on Sunday closed the offices of an Islamic charity in Nazareth on suspicion that it was channeling funds to the families of suicide bombers.

Large sums of money were reportedly confiscated when police closed the offices of the Islamic Salvation Committee in Nazareth, a city within Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Last week, Israeli police arrested the deputy mayor of Umm el-Fahm, the second largest Arab population center in Israel, on charges of diverting charity to the families of Hamas terrorists.