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Anguished Israel seals territories

Published Oct. 7, 2005

Israel began burying its dead Thursday and trying to figure out what to do next before more madness engulfs the country.

After Wednesday's suicide bombing that apparently aimed to torpedo peace with the blood of 21 bus passengers, the Israeli Cabinet authorized indefinitely sealing off the West Bank and Gaza Strip from Israel, where as many as 65,000 Palestinians work daily. Exceptions will be made only in humanitarian cases.

"We need a separation between us and the Palestinians, not just for days but as a way of life," Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said for the second day in a row as he sought special powers to crack down on Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic group that claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack and three others in the last five weeks.

Rabin vowed to blow up the houses of Islamic militants and hinted that he may deport their leaders. Widespread arrests are expected.

A spokesman for Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, who has condemned the attack on bus No.

5 along Tel Aviv's crowded Dizengoff Street, said the closure was in essence an "economic and social war" on Palestinians.

Israel faces a dilemma in trying to combat the acts of militant fundamentalists whose popularity is growing among Palestinians who so far have seen few benefits to the PLO's peace pact with Israel.

If Israel does nothing, Hamas will be given the green light to attempt more violence. But if it uses Draconian measures to combat Hamas, sweeping in Palestinians not caught up in the movement, it risks further alienating Palestinians and reinforcing their support of a group that rejects any peace with Israel.

The latter possibility is most imminent in the West Bank town of Qalqilya, where Israelis believe the suicide bomber lived. The army declared a curfew and sealed off the home of the parents of Salah Abdel-Rahim Hassan Assawi, who is said to have carried out the bombing. Residents said his parents and eight brothers and sisters were ordered to leave with their belongings, typically a sign the house is to be demolished.

Islamic militants Thursday handed out a videotape of the 27-year-old Assawi, saying he bombed the bus in Tel Aviv to avenge Israel's killing last week of three extremists who had kidnapped a soldier. The four, and an Israeli commando, died in a shootout.

In the tape, Assawi was dressed in a green-and-yellow T-shirt and held an Israeli-manufactured automatic rifle. He said he planned to commit a suicide attack because his 14-year-old brother had been killed during the intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

"There are many of us young people from Izzedine al-Qassam ready to carry out such actions," he said, referring to the militant wing of Hamas. "We will continue such actions."

But Henya Vidor, a bus passenger who got off the bus on the stop just before the blast, told police she did not recognize Assawi.

The indefinite closure of Gaza and the West Bank keeps Palestinians away from jobs in Israel proper. Palestinians also will be prohibited from visiting religious sites in Israel without a permit, and from attending Arab schools and visiting hospitals that are centered in East Jerusalem.

In the past, Israel has tried unsuccessfully to wean itself from Palestinian labor, which is concentrated largely in construction, agriculture and domestic jobs that few Israelis are willing to take on for the low wages Palestinians accept.

After previous acts of violence, the Israeli government tried to ban all Palestinians and replace them with unemployed Israelis, in particular new Russian immigrants. But Israeli employers complained that the replacements were neither as skilled nor as diligent as their Palestinian workers, and so the restrictions have been eased.

The government Thursday approved a measure to bring in another 15,000 foreign workers to take the place of Palestinians. Already, there are several thousand Thai and Philippine workers laboring in agricultural jobs.

Arafat's spokesman, Marwan Kanafani, called the closure "collective punishment" against innocent people. He warned it could slow the peace process.

"I see in these resolutions adopted by the Israeli Cabinet today a declaration of war, an economic and social war against the Palestinian society that will negatively affect the whole process," he said.

Throughout the day, Israelis made pilgrimage to the site of the carnage on Dizengoff Street. The death toll rose to 21 when one of the 48 passengers wounded died.