REUTERS – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his cabinet Wednesday to discuss Israel’s next steps following a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 19 people and an Israeli air strike in Syria the following day.
Faced with what the army called numerous alerts of pending suicide attacks, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz gave the military the go-ahead Tuesday to order a special call-up of reservists, should it deem one necessary, security sources said.
Some ministers want Israel to carry out a threat to “remove” Palestinian President Yasser Arafat after Saturday’s suicide bombing but Sharon has until now opposed this, saying it could be counter-productive.
Sharon was buoyed by support from President Bush after threatening Tuesday to hit Israel’s enemies anywhere in a battle against Palestinian militant groups, although Bush also said he must show caution.
“The decisions that he makes to defend her people are valid decisions. We would be doing the same thing,” Bush said when asked about Sharon’s remarks, adding it was “important for the prime minister to avoid escalation.”
Bush had responded initially to Israel’s air raid Sunday on what it said was a training camp for Palestinian militants near Damascus, but Syria said was a civilian site, by saying the Jewish state should not feel constrained about defending itself.
Israel launched its deepest strike into Syria for 30 years a day after a female suicide bomber from the Islamic Jihad group killed 19 people in a restaurant in the northern city of Haifa.
Israeli jets roared over Lebanon Wednesday, without launching any strike and only breaking the sound barrier, two days after an Israeli soldier and a Lebanese boy were killed in border flare-ups, a Reuters correspondent said.
The latest violence has dealt further blows to peace hopes, although Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, who was sworn in with a small emergency cabinet Tuesday, renewed calls for progress on the U.S.-backed peace “road map.”
Qurie made a fresh appeal for a cease-fire with Israel in an interview published by an Israeli newspaper Wednesday, saying he was ready to start talks immediately.
“I hope to work with your government and reach a cease-fire. Give us a chance to prevent a continued deterioration (of violence),” Qurie told the daily Ma’ariv.
Labor Minister Zevulun Orlev restated Israel’s objections, saying: “Israel does not have to give him a chance. He needs to prove himself through action and not through pleasant words.”
The road map sets out steps to end three years of violence and establish a Palestinian state by 2005 but has stalled after a new wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli track-and-kill raids against militants.
Israel says it will not press on with the road map until the Palestinians rein in Islamic militants who have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks.
Qurie says he will try to persuade the militants to end violence but rules out using force which could risk a civil war.
Arafat established an emergency cabinet of eight ministers under Qurie after Israeli cabinet ministers made new calls for his exile following Saturday’s suicide bombing.
Interior Minister Nasser Youssef did not attend the swearing in ceremony Tuesday. Palestinian sources said he was unhappy with the crisis cabinet and wanted a full government formed.
The army said tightened travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would remain in effect as Sukkoth, the weeklong harvest holiday, approached.
Palestinians and human rights groups describe the Israeli closures as collective punishment.
Speaking at a memorial service marking the anniversary of the 1973 Middle East war, Sharon made no specific reference to Syria, but said: “Israel will not be deterred from defending its citizens and will hit its enemies any place and in any way.