Israeli Gov't Weighing Response to Palestinian Terrorism

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrived home from the U.S. on Monday morning and went immediately into discussions with his inner security cabinet to decide on Israel's response to a wave of unprecedented terror attacks, which claimed 26 lives and left more than 200 wounded over the weekend.

Sharon cut short his visit to the U.S., moving his meeting with President Bush up by a day, after two suicide bombers blew themselves up just before midnight on Saturday evening in Jerusalem's city center.

Ten young men aged 14 to 20 were killed in the double blast, which happened on a pedestrian mall full of shops and cafes. It is a popular place for young people to meet with their friends. As ambulances rushed to the scene and hysterical crowds were herded from the scene, a powerful car bomb exploded on a side street. Some 180 were wounded, mostly from the suicide bombers.

Barely 12 hours later, just after noontime on Sunday, another suicide bomber boarded a crowded city bus in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa and blew himself up, killing15 more Israelis and wounding 38, some seriously.

Witnesses said the force of the blast lifted the bus off the ground. Its mangled and burned-out frame sitting on the street made the area look like a war zone. It was the worst attack that the mixed Jewish-Arab city has suffered in the past 14 months of the Palestinian uprising.

In between the two attacks, Dr. Baruch Singer, a nuclear scientist, was murdered by Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza strip. Later, an Israeli soldier and border policeman were seriously wounded in two separate shooting attacks.

Sharon who is receiving a complete security briefing at his inner cabinet meeting, will address the nation on prime time television Monday evening and later convene the entire cabinet for a discussion under the heading of "the subcommittee for defense affairs."

The prime minister's office declined to comment on the meetings, but Israel's response is expected to be very strong.

"These are unprecedented events - terror attacks on Israel's major cities, including the capital," said government spokesman Arye Mekel.

"We asked [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat many times to change his ways and act against terror. Nothing has happened," Mekel said in a telephone interview.

"Obviously [Israel] has to provide first of all security to its citizens. We have to take whatever steps are necessary," he added.

Several ministers reportedly called for Arafat and the PA to be declared "the enemy" and dealt with accordingly.

According to reports, Sharon indicated earlier that he would stop short of toppling Arafat and the PA.

No Disagreement

In his meeting with Bush, Sharon told the president that Israel would now take matters into its own hands regarding the fight against terror. He also reportedly said that Israel holds Arafat responsible for all that is happening on the ground.

An official was quoted as saying that Sharon would attack the terrorists but avoid an all out war.

Press reports on Monday, highlighted a comment made by a senior source in Sharon's delegation saying that there was "not even the slightest disagreement" between Bush and Sharon.

Neither of the leaders spoke to the press after their hour-long meeting, but before they met Bush condemned what he called the "horrific acts of murder" that had taken place in Israel.

"This is a moment where the advocates for peace in the Middle East must rise up and fight terror," Bush said. "Chairman Arafat must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice."

Bush said that those who use "violence and terror to disrupt any progress" must not be allowed "to destroy the chance of peace in the Middle East."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who joined the meeting with Sharon, said that the U.S. would not try to tell Israel what action it should or should not take.

"We are not going to tell the Prime Minister, who has been freely elected by his people to defend his nation, what he [should do]," Powell said in an interview on CBS's Face the Nation prior to the meeting. The question, he added, is whether Israeli action will make the situation better or worse.

Powell, who said he had spoken, to Arafat after Saturday's attack said this would be the Palestinian leader's "moment of truth." He also said that Arafat's deadline to stop the violence "ought to be now."

State of Emergency

Arafat condemned the weekend terror attacks, as he has on many other occasions. Nevertheless, Israel and the U.S. are demanding action and not words.

Dovish Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who spoke by phone with several of his European counterparts, said this past week was the bloodiest that Israel had ever known.

He called on Arafat to dismantle the infrastructure of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizballah and prevent terror attacks against Israel, as he had after a string of deadly attacks struck Israel in 1996.

"Arafat will be judged by his actions and not by his declarations," Peres said.

The PA declared a state of emergency on Sunday. That means that everyone who does not abide by the ceasefire declared by Arafat several times in the last few months will be considered to be breaking the law and will be dealt with by the General Security services.

"The [PA] leadership considers any group or organization that does not adhere to its decisions - especially those that serve the goals of the extremist forces in Israel - illegal, particularly those who claim responsibility for these attacks and bombings against civilians in Israel," a statement said.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attacks in Jerusalem but PA officials were quoted as saying that they believed Hamas was responsible for the bombings in both Jerusalem and Haifa.