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Israel Stops Contact With Palestinian Leader - 2001-12-13

Israel's government has broken its contacts with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the Israeli military has launched military operations in Gaza and the West Bank. The moves came after Palestinian extremists ambushed a bus carrying Jewish settlers in the West Bank Wednesday night and detonated bombs outside a Jewish settlement in Gaza. Palestinians call the Israeli actions a declaration of war.

Israeli spokesman Dore Gold told VOA, Israel is taking the actions to defend its citizens against more Palestinian attacks. "Right now our people are getting killed and therefore the government will take whatever actions are necessary in the security field to stop this violence by ourselves," Gold said.

Israeli tanks have rolled into Ramallah and are stationed outside Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters and several other buildings there. But the government says its security operations are not targeting Mr. Arafat.

The top Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, is not so sure. He told VOA, Israel is playing a dangerous game that threatens any efforts to revive the peace process. "The Israeli government's endgame is to destroy the Palestinian Authority, to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and maybe their tactics will lead to killing Arafat even," Erekat said.

Israel has said it holds Yasser Arafat responsible for not ending the extremist attacks against Israelis. Mr. Erekat says the Palestinian Authority has ordered the closure of Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices as part of its crackdown on terrorism.

But Israel says those steps are too little, too late, and is dispatching its forces to make arrests and confiscate weapons in the West Bank and Gaza. Bulldozers have destroyed the main Palestinian radio station in Ramallah.

The Israeli military raids come after the two separate Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers Wednesday night killed at least 10 people and wounded more than 30 others. About 10 days ago suicide bombers killed 26 people in Haifa and Jerusalem.

Mr. Gold, a top adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, dismisses the idea the military deployment will lead to re-occupation of Palestinian territories. "Israel has no interest in having its forces patrolling in the casbah of Nablus or in the heart of Gaza City. But Israel does feel that it must take actions in order to defend its population from this rising tide of terrorism," Gold said.

But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat voices fears the Israeli military presence could be more long term. "I think once they say that the Palestinian Authority is irrelevant, this is a declaration that they will resume occupation of the West Bank and that's a very, very dangerous and grave development," Erekat said.

The escalating violence has undermined U.S. efforts to broker a truce between the two sides. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni has been trying to broker at least two days of calm but so far that has proved impossible.