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Israel demands terrorist crackdown

The Israeli government demanded Sunday that the Palestinian Authority take measures against further acts of terrorism but did not threaten to stop peace negotiations.

The government's statement, issued after a meeting of the Cabinet's committee on national security, was accompanied by a blitz of public declarations from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his security chiefs charging Palestinian leaders with giving an indirect "green light" for terror attacks and inciting street violence.

Palestinian youths again took to the streets of Hebron to pelt Israeli troops with stones, but in contrast to previous days, Palestinian police succeeded in restraining the protesters, and Israeli soldiers held back from taking action. Enclosed by a heavy ring of soldiers in battle gear, Jewish settlers paraded through Hebron in the Halloween-like costumes of the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Security forces also maintained a high alert against the possibility of another terrorist strike by Palestinian militants after the suicide bombing on Friday of a Tel Aviv cafe, in which three women were killed.

Soldiers with sniffer dogs patrolled Tel Aviv's central Dizengoff Street, which is usually cordoned off for Purim. As it was, daylong rain forced many revelers to move into the Dizengoff Center shopping mall, the site of another terrorist bombing during Purim last year, which killed 14 people, including the bomber, and injured about 130.

Sunday's session of what is known as the "inner security cabinet" was the first meeting of the government after the Friday bombing attack, and it was watched carefully for an indication of how Netanyahu intended to proceed and whether he would take the sort of severe measures he had advocated in such cases when he was an opposition leader.

Israeli television reported that hard-line members of his Cabinet, including Ariel Sharon, Natan Sharansky and Rafael Eitan, demanded an end to negotiations and the imposition of economic sanctions against the Palestinian areas unless Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, rearrested the 150 Palestinian militants he has reportedly released over the past eight months.

The statement that emerged, however, made no mention of punitive measures, or of Arafat by name. It said the government "demands that the Palestinian Authority fulfill its obligation to fight terrorism and violence as a necessary stage in advancing the peace process." In subsequent interviews, Netanyahu avoided direct answers when asked whether he intended to suspend the negotiations.

Negotiations are frozen in any event, since Arafat pulled back his negotiators in anger earlier this month after Netanyahu's government approved the construction of a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem and then scheduled a troop withdrawal from the West Bank that the Palestinians rejected as far too small.

Through all the tumult, Arafat flew off to Pakistan for an Islamic summit conference, where he was assured of a warm response to his charges of Israeli "obstinacy and intransigence." It was not entirely clear when he would return or whether he went ahead with the trip as a deliberate demonstration of defiance.

Western diplomats said Netanyahu's response to the bombing apparently reflected the calculation that a combination of public pressure and tactical restraint might bring Arafat back to battling the militant Islamic organizations, as he was doing until relations with the Israeli government began to sour last summer.

The diplomats said Netanyahu might also think that with Arafat on the defensive in the wake of the bombing, the Israeli leader might have a better chance of pursuing his proposal to forgo further interim steps and plunge directly into negotiations on a final peace settlement, with the intention of reaching one within six months.

Netanyahu floated that idea last Monday in talks with King Hussein of Jordan. But at that time, Arafat's lieutenants dismissed it as a "media gimmick."

Along with the government statement, Netanyahu and senior army officers issued a new salvo of charges that leaders of Hamas and other militant Islamic organizations emerged from a meeting with Arafat on March 9 thinking they had received a "green light"from the Palestinian leader to resume terror attacks.

When Netanyahu first aired the charges last week, before the Tel Aviv blast, the U.S. State Department said it had no such information. Sunday, however, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agreed that the militants apparently thought they had a go-ahead.

"There is clearly a perception of the green light, but no concrete evidence," she said on the CBS news program Face the Nation," adding that "there needs to be some improvement" in Arafat's efforts to stop violence.

The charge of a "green light" was pressed at a news conference in Jerusalem by the Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, and the chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon. Yaalon said the signal was issued by Arafat on March 9 .

The generals also said Arafat encouraged the militants by steadily releasing leaders detained in the wake of a series of suicide bombings a year ago. According to Israeli officials, the Palestinian Authority has released 120 of the 200 men identified by Israel as dangerous, including 16 who have Israeli blood on their hands. Israel further charges that 10 of those released now serve in the Palestinian police.