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Palestinian Leaders Reject Israeli Demands to Extradite Assassins

By Lee Hockstader
THE WASHINGTON POST

RAMALLAH, West Bank

Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority Thursday rejected an ultimatum by Israel to hand over the assassins of an Israeli cabinet minister. Threatening a major attack, Israeli tanks roared into the outskirts of three Palestinian cities, killing three Palestinians.

On the heels of the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as telling his cabinet: “Arafat has seven days to impose absolute quiet in the (Palestinian) territories. If not we’ll go to war against him.” Another Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, quoted Sharon as saying, “As far as I’m concerned, the era of Arafat is over.”

Arafat ordered the arrest of at least three political leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the militant group that took responsibility for assassinating Zeevi, an extreme nationalist. But Palestinian officials said there was no question of extraditing the leaders or anyone else to Israel, including the suspected killers if they are caught, and Israel said the arrest orders were insufficient.

“We reject the Israeli ultimatum,” said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. “This ultimatum is Israeli blackmail, not an attempt to seek a solution to the present crisis.”

Meanwhile, in Jordan, veteran PFLP militant Leila Khaled said the group would try to assassinate more Israeli politicians, with Sharon at the top of the list. The Palestinians said they had “uncovered” an Israeli plot to assassinate Arafat; the Israelis dismissed the allegation as nonsense.

As the day progressed, the tempo of violence intensified. At dawn Sharon ordered Israeli tanks and armored vehicles into Palestinian-controlled parts of Ramallah and Jenin in the West Bank, triggering firefights that left three Palestinians dead, including a 12-year-old schoolgirl.

In Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, the tanks rolled to within a half mile of Arafat’s main headquarters there, and Israeli forces declared a round-the-clock curfew for Palestinians in areas of the West Bank under their control. In the afternoon, Israeli tanks entered a third Palestinian city in the West Bank, Nablus.

Sharon’s strategy, said an Israeli official, “is to apply moderate force on the Palestinians and send the Americans to pressure them, hoping they’ll get the message and it’ll not be necessary to do anything really serious. So it’s a game of chicken in a way.”

Thursday evening, a well-known Palestinian armed militant and two compatriots were killed by an explosion in a jeep carrying them in Bethlehem. The militant, Atef Abayat, was on Israel’s most-wanted list, and Palestinians said he had been assassinated by Israeli agents in a booby-trapped car.

Abayat’s death touched off extremely heavy gun battles Thursday night between Palestinian gunmen who opened fire from the town of Beit Jala and Israeli troops in the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on Jerusalem’s southern fringe -- the first fighting there in almost two months. Palestinians also fired a mortar shell toward Gilo.

Sharon, who put Israeli troops in Beit Jala for two days in late August, had vowed to re-occupy the town if Palestinians resumed firing from there.

Also Thursday, one Jewish settler was killed and three others injured in two separate ambushes near Jericho and Qalqilya.