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Kessel: Israel ties assassination to terror war

CNN's Jerrold Kessel in Jerusalem
CNN's Jerrold Kessel in Jerusalem  

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- A day after the assassination of Israeli minister of tourism Rechavam Zeevi, the mood is tense in Israel and the West Bank. Palestinians have rejected an Israeli ultimatum to hand over those responsible for Zeevi's killing.

And while Israeli tanks have rolled into two West Bank towns, ensuing clashes have killed two Palestinians, including a 10-year-old girl.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel filed this report from Jerusalem.

KESSEL: The assassination could affect the war on terrorism very negatively. Israelis are now preparing to bury the assassinated cabinet minister, hard-line politician Rechavam Zeevi, who was gunned down yesterday in a Jerusalem hotel. Claim for that killing was made by the radical Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

And just as people have been filing past the casket, which has been lying in state in the forecourt of the Israeli parliament, the truce ... is threatening to come apart at the seams.

After a late-night security cabinet meeting last night, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Sharon issued a very, very strong statement and demanded of Yasser Arafat that unless he was willing to capture and hand over those responsible for the killing of Rechavam Zeevi, they would bear the consequences.

The statement was very emphatic in trying to put this in the context of the United States' global war on terror, saying that Israel would act against the Palestinian Authority -- this is from the Israeli government statement -- in a way currently accepted by the international community to act against the leadership that supports terror. The government spokesman said that Israel would act against the Palestinian Authority just the same way as the United States is acting against the Taliban for refusing to give up Osama bin Laden.

But even as Israel made that very strong statement, to underline it, and perhaps to even preempt it, Israel has sent tanks into two Palestinian towns, or at least into the outskirts of two Palestinian towns on the West Bank -- Ramallah in the central part of the West Bank, and Jenin in the northern part of the West Bank. And these tanks have gone in and this has triggered some quite serious gun battles with the Palestinian police and the Palestinian gunmen in those towns. And as a result of that, at least two Palestinians have been killed -- one a policeman in Ramallah; and a 10-year-old Palestinian schoolgirl in Jenin was killed. Altogether, 10 Palestinians were wounded.

So, a very volatile situation is evolving here as Israel undertakes the stringent action, makes demands and tries to say this is equivalent to the United States' action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's a volatile situation and there's likely to be a great deal more international pressure to try to salvage this very tentative truce that was in existence beforehand.

CNN: You say that Ariel Sharon has tossed the ball now in Yasser Arafat's court. What are the signals coming from the Palestinian Authority? Are they going to cooperate? Are they going after whoever was responsible for this assassination?

KESSEL: I think we've got a very interesting situation evolving here and it could be that the Israeli prime minister has preempted the pressure that was coming down enormously on Yasser Arafat. Yesterday, we had heard from the United Nations special envoy here, who said he was acting in concert and together with the United States and European forces to tell Yasser Arafat this is the time for action. You have to understand, this is the Palestinians' Rubicon, as one diplomat put it to me, and the Palestinian leader knows he's got to cross it.

But while the pressure was on Yasser Arafat -- and Ariel Sharon has been trying to pile it up even further and by making this demand of Mr. Arafat -- he's put him in a very, very tight position, indeed.

At the same time, Sharon's gone ahead with these tanks going into Ramallah and Jenin, and that could mean that the pressure will come back on Ariel Sharon, as well. We do know Colin Powell has been on the phone both to the Palestinian leadership and to the Israelis, telling them to keep this truce in place. The question is, how does everybody finesse the other to make sure that the truce does hold? Do they want it to hold? That's a question that could be answered very, very quickly, perhaps as early as today or tomorrow.


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