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Israel Renews Talk of Isolating West Bank in Wake of Bombings

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

Hours after a suicide bombing attack had killed 19 of his comrades Sunday, a wounded soldier named Moshe Saidi offered this solution to continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "We should put them all in a cage and leave them there and make it so they can't get out."

Tuesday, with softer language but uncertain intention, Israel's government revived talk of fencing off Israel from the occupied West Bank and its nearly 1 million Arabs. Fueled by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's declared goal of separating the two peoples, would-be fence builders in his cabinet began detailing the costs of such a project and arguing about how far into the West Bank the barrier should be built.

There are reasons to doubt that the project will get off the drawing board: the interdependence of Israeli industry and Palestinian labor, the opposition of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and the impact of a fortified border on territorial decisions that Rabin is not nearly ready to make.

Rabin's spokesman, Oded Ben Ami, said the prime minister wished only to study the idea. "In the past, we ordered a closure and one week later the outcry of the construction business started and we had to cancel the closure, and then the idea of separation was forgotten," Ben Ami said.

But the politicians' talk, like that of the wounded soldier, seemed a barometer of national mood. At a moment of deep discontent with the fruits of their 16-month-old accord on Palestinian self-rule, Israelis and Arabs both are looking for ways to pull apart. Rabin's message, commentator Hemi Shalev wrote today in the newspaper Ma'ariv, is "not peace, not reconciliation, not brotherhood, not life together, but separation."

The message from the Israeli public, pollsters say, is that something has to change. A Motgim Institute poll published Tuesday said 50 percent of Israeli adults favor a halt to the peace process with Palestinians after Sunday's two-stage bombing at the Beit Lid Junction military bus station, 18 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. Thirty seven percent said they would like to see the talks continue.

In another blow to Rabin, the largest ultra-Orthodox political party and a former coalition partner with the ruling Labor Party voted against the government Tuesday night on a no-confidence motion. The party, Sephardi Torah Guardians, or Shas, left Rabin's coalition 18 months ago, taking with it its six swing votes in the 120-member parliament. But its leaders had left the door open to return, and Rabin had held two cabinet posts empty for them.

Rabin survived the no-confidence vote, 61 to 53, but Shas's turn to outright opposition - ostensibly because it feared Rabin might restrict building of Jewish settlements in occupied territory near Jerusalem and because Rabin had "desecrated the Sabbath" with a Saturday economic meeting - was taken as a sign that the party's savvy power brokers think the Labor-led coalition is on its way out.

As part of a continuing crackdown on Islamic militants, Rabin has given the green light to security forces to raid mosques and detain militant religious and political leaders, two steps he had avoided after a bus bombing in Tel Aviv last October killed 23 Israelis.

The army, police and Shin Bet security service took scores of Muslim activists into custody and closed at least three offices of the Society of Islamic Scholars, in the West Bank towns of Hebron, Nablus and Al Bireh.

An army spokesman, refusing to elaborate, said the raids had "uncovered large quantities of papers and documents which testify to illegal activities conducted by the society." He added that because the society provides "religious legal backing for armed struggle against the state of Israel," it will now be considered an illegal organization by the West Bank's military government.

In the Gaza Strip, amid promises of a similar crackdown on militants there, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian self-rule administration arrested and then released Sheikh Abdallah Shami, spokesman for the radical group that claimed responsibility for Sunday's bombing, Islamic Jihad.