Israel on high alert for Passover as government adds to pressure on Arafat

Israel was on high alert ahead of the Passover holidayas the government kept up its campaign of intimidation against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accusing him of being a bigger obstacle to peace than assassinated Hamas chief Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, AFP reported.

Security was being especially tightened around Jewish settlements in the West Bank after the killing of a Jewish resident of the northern West Bank settlement of Avnei Hefetz in the early hours of Saturday.


The attack was carried out by a member of Hamas, 18-year-old Ramzi Fakhri Arda, who was himself shot dead by troops stationed nearby.

As is its policy, the Israeli army demolished Arda's family home in the Tulkarem refugee camp in the northern West Bank on Sunday morning.

Intelligence officials fear that Palestinian militants will try and mark the start of Passover, which begins with a traditional feast on Monday night, by carrying out attacks on Israeli targets.

Twenty-nine Israelis were killed and more than 100 injured two years ago when a packed hotel in the coastal city of Netanya was hit on the first day of Passover in the worst suicide attack against the Jewish state.

Twenty-one civilians were also killed last October on the eve of Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar.

"Every holiday, we know that the terror organisations are taking more active measures in order to attempt to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers," said an army spokesman.

"Due to the high number of alerts that are currently in place, it is therefore well known that IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) forces and border police forces (which cover the West Bank) are being deployed around areas in which Israelis are located."

A police source said that the holidays "are usually the time for the highest state of alert."

Palestinian militants have already vowed to avenge Israel's assassination two weeks ago of Yassin.

The killing of the wheelchair-bound cleric in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City has reawakened debate over the fate of Arafat.

In a newspaper interview published on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said neither Arafat nor the head of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah should feel "immune".

Health Minister Danny Naveh sought to ratchet up the pressure on Sunday, declaring Arafat a "more serious obstacle" to peace than Yassin.

The minister, who is member of Sharon's right-wing Likud party, also made a new call for Arafat's expulsion from his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where the 74-year-old has been effectively confined to house arrest for more than two years.

"His expulsion is important, for he continues to transfer funds to the terror organisations and encourages attacks by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades," he said in reference to a radical offshoot of Arafat's Fatah movement.

Sharon's comments were seen by many observers as a bid to demonstrate he was not "going soft" by pushing ahead with plans to evacuate most if not all of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

The pull-out has been condemned by right-wing nationalists in his cabinet who have argued such a move will be interpreted as a "victory for terrorists".

Tourism Minister Benny Elon of the National Union and Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party were reported to have slammed Sharon during the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday for trying to stifle debate on the issue.

The Haaretz daily's website reported that Elon told Sharon: "You want to shut our mouths."

Sharon reportedly replied that "whoever feels ill at ease can get up and leave."

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