SHARON defends airstrikes: Israel will do 'what it takes' to protect Israelis

Sunday, May 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Facing a barrage of criticism for his decision to employ warplanes against the Palestinians in retaliation for a terrorist bombing, a defiant Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in comments published Sunday that Israel will do ``what it takes'' to protect its people.

Sharon was convening top Cabinet ministers Sunday after a bloody weekend that claimed the lives of six Israelis and 16 Palestinians, including a suicide bomber who blew himself up outside an Israeli shopping center on Friday morning.

In violence Sunday, an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded by Palestinian gunfire while guarding a Jewish settlement near the West Bank town of Ramallah. Also in Ramallah, a Palestinian was shot by what appeared to be a stray bullet, Palestinian security officials said. His condition was not immediately known.

Security was tight in preparation for the annual ``Jerusalem Day,'' which was to begin at sundown. Israel planned a series of marches in Jerusalem to show support for maintaining all of the city as the Jewish state's capital. The Palestinians are demanding the part that Israel occupied in 1967 _ including the Old City with its Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites _ as their future capital, and the matter was one of the main sticking points in negotiations that broke down last year.

The escalation on the ground threatened to have wider consequences. In Cairo, a meeting of Arab foreign ministers and delegates asked Arab governments Saturday to sever political contact with Israel until it ceased military action against Palestinians.

But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Sunday that Egypt and Jordan will not give up their efforts to relaunch the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

In Israel, politicians and analysts questioned whether the massive retaliation for Friday's suicide bombing _ which for the first time in 34 years included warplane strikes against Palestinian targets _ would have any effect.

``We will do what it takes and use everything at our disposal to protect the citizens of Israel,'' Sharon told the daily Yediot Ahronot. ``The Americans understand that we cannot take any more.''

Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, chief of military operations, said Israel decided to use U.S.-made F-16 fighter planes because they were the only aircraft that could accurately hit the targets Israel was aiming for. He said this did not signal a new stage of calculated escalation of firepower.

But there were signs Israel hoped for stepped-up U.S. intervention.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been asked to do everything possible to ``convince (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat to stop the violence,'' Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's office said in a statement.

Former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel called for former U.S. Senator George Mitchell _ who heads an international commission investigating the causes of the eight months of violence _ to be appointed as a Mideast envoy.

A draft of the Mitchell commission report calls for an end to violence, but also says Israel should stop all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has insisted that some construction must continue in existing settlements to account for ``natural growth.''

Criticism of the weekend's retaliatory strikes continued Sunday, with opposition leader Yossi Sarid saying that the Palestinians killed were not necessarily those involved in violence and former air force chief Eitan Ben-Eliyahu warning that the use of F-16 fighter jets could backfire.

``One would expect the prime minister, the foreign minister, the chief of staff and his generals to be more levelheaded,'' wrote Hemi Shalev in the Maariv newspaper, calling the airstrikes ``a gross diplomatic-strategic error.''

In the Gaza Strip, tensions continued to simmer Sunday.

The Palestinian Popular Resistance Committee claimed responsibility for setting an explosive device off next to an Israeli tank near the Rafah refugee camp along the Egyptian border. The military said there were no injuries.

Palestinian security officials said Israeli naval boats fired on Palestinian police positions off the Gaza coast. The army denied the report.

In all, the violence which began Sept. 28 has claimed 469 lives on the Palestinian side and 84 on the Israeli side.