Sharon: Arafat to Blame for Mideast Violence

Dec. 4, 2001 -- Declaring its own war on terrorism, Israeli forces lashed out at Palestinian targets in response to a series of deadly suicide attacks over the weekend.

In a rousing, televised address to the nation on Monday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personally blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the weekend attacks, which killed 26 people and injured 200 others.

"Anyone who stands up to kill us is subject to death," he said.

Following the speech, Israeli ministers met in a full Cabinet meeting where they were expected to decide on the new measures to combat attacks. Sharon declined to provide further details. Reuters reported that the Cabinet declared Arafat's Palestinian Authority a "terror-supporting entity" and it declared the armed wing of Arafat's Fatah organization and his elite Force 17 security units to be "terrorist groups," making them possible targets.

Later in the evening, Israeli forces raided Palestinian-run Gaza Airport. Tanks, armored vehicles and bulldozers were reportedly used, tearing up the runway.

The attack was only the latest in a day in which Israel launched airstrikes on Palestinian targets in Gaza City, destroying some of Arafat's helicopters and his helipad. The attacks were followed by F-16 strikes on a Palestinian police headquarters in the West Bank town of Jenin.

Palestinian firemen in Gaza City continued to battle flames and smoke rising from buildings struck by Israeli missiles, including some structures in and around Arafat's headquarters.

Palestinian officials said Arafat was not in his Gaza headquarters but in the West Bank city of Ramallah during the attack.

Nabil Sha'ath, a Palestinian Cabinet member, said during a broadcast interview that Arafat's two helicopters were destroyed in the Gaza City attack. The helicopters, said Sha'ath, provide the only air transportation the Israelis approve for Arafat.

Sha'ath also said barracks of Arafat's personal guards were among the targets hit and there were a number of casualties.

Although the bombardment was widely believed to be a personal warning to Arafat, an Israeli military spokesman denied reports that the Palestinian leader was the target of the attacks. "Of course one should understand that if we would like to hit the home or headquarters of Chairman Arafat we could have done that quite easily," said Brig. Gen. Ron Kitri. "Of course that was not the target and Palestinian claims in that direction are quite false."

As fires continued to rage into the evening hours in Gaza City, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat called on the United States to urge Israel to stop the bombardment.

But speaking to reporters in Washington on Monday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Israel has a right to defend herself and the president understands that clearly."

Palestinian Police Make Mass Arrests

In an apparent bid to appease Israel following the weekend attacks, Palestinian security forces rounded up 110 suspected militants across the West Bank and Gaza earlier in the day, following intense pressure from Israel and Washington to arrest those responsible for the attacks.

Palestinian officials said it was the biggest sweep of militants in five years and promised there would be more arrests.

Speaking on Israel's Army Radio, Palestinian Cabinet minister Ziad Abu Zayyad said, "We have started toact at a much faster pace than ever before."

But Israeli officials dismissed the arrests as a charade. Israel has targeted the area around Arafat's offices near the Mediterranean Sea often in the past.

Troops on Alert

The latest developments have dealt a major blow to the already floundering Middle East peace process even as two U.S. envoys are in the region to try to get the two sides to go back to the negotiating table.

Israeli troops have been put on high alert and the army tightened its blockade around towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority has already declared a state of emergency in the areas it controls and Palestinian sources said most of the arrested suspects were members of the militant Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In Gaza, thousands of Hamas supporters ignored a ban on such gatherings and promised more suicide attacks during a funeral service. Protesters also called on Arafat to release the suspected militants arrested since Sunday's attacks.

In a weekend of horrific carnage, two suicide bomb attacks, conducted within 12 hours, shocked the nation. On Saturday, two Palestinians blew themselves up in a mall in downtown Jerusalem, killing 10 people and injuring 170, most of them young revelers, in the Ben Yehuda area. Hours later, Palestinian gunmen killed one Israeli and wounded five others at a Jewish settlement in Gaza, before being shot dead.

As the nation reeled from the attacks, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus in the northern coastal city of Haifa on Sunday, killing 15 people and wounding more than 100 others.

Washington Mounts Pressure

President Bush immediately denounced the attacks, calling them "horrific acts of murder." Shortly before meeting with Sharon in Washington on Sunday, he told reporters that Arafat "must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice."

Significantly, Washington did not issue its usual public appeal to Israel to show restraint. But U.S. State Department Spokesman Philip Reeker revealed that contrary to speculation, Bush did not grant Sharon a green light to take whatever action he deemed necessary, either.

"There was no green light asked for, and no green light given," he said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington was not about to tell Sharon what to do but that both sides must be aware of the consequences of any action.

Whatever course of action Israel takes, the pressure on Arafat is only expected to intensify. In contrast to the close relationship Arafat shared with former President Clinton, President Bush has very noticeably never met with the Palestinian leader.

ABCNEWS' Gillian Findlay in Jerusalem and Terry Moran in Washington contributed to this report.