Fearing fierce retaliation for a devastating nightclub bombing, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat offered his version Saturday of a cease-fire aimed at stilling eight months of bloody Mideast strife. A highly skeptical Israel said it would give Arafat "hours" to prove he is serious.
As Palestinians braced for payback from an outraged Jewish state, the Israeli government blamed Arafat's "coalition of terror" for the Friday night suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 19 Israelis and wounded more than 100. Most of the dead were teenage girls, daughters of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
In a seven-hour emergency Cabinet session held, unusually, on the Jewish Sabbath, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government ministers argued bitterly about the scope and breadth of possible military reprisals.
Meeting in Tel Aviv, they immediately tightened a blockade on Palestinian towns and authorized other measures, including grounding Arafat by prohibiting him from flying into or out of the Gaza Strip, drastically reducing the number of Palestinian workers allowed in Israel and shutting all exits from Palestinian territory. Israel has never before attempted to restrict Arafat's use of his private plane, which he takes on scores of trips all over the world in search of support.
"Something horrible has happened, and we will not ignore it," Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Saturday night. "We will retaliate. If someone thinks we've grown used to the situation, then he's making a mistake."
The government is under enormous pressure to hit back, and aerial bombardment or other punishment appeared inevitable. But the last-minute cease-fire vow from Arafat, and international pleas for restraint, appeared to have delayed massive armed response for the moment. Arafat did not outline specific steps he planned to take.
A senior Israeli army officer said troops will resume the targeted slayings of Palestinian militants--a practice that Israel initiated last year but suspended recently--and will launch offensive operations to prevent specific attacks. But large-scale military operations will be put on hold for a day or two while the Israelis await Arafat's actions, he said.
"International pressure may be more effective in the next few days than any direct Israeli response," the officer said.
The deadliest terrorism attack in Israel in at least five years spurred Sharon to his harshest condemnation yet of Arafat. But the prime minister, who has promised to restore security to an embattled nation, has been confronted with the limitations of military might, which has yet to quell a Palestinian revolt or a growing wave of terrorism.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Arafat reversed himself and announced that he would "exert our utmost efforts" to attempt to enforce a cease-fire. Until now, Arafat has resisted calls from the world over to put a stop to the violence.
Under pressure, with two senior European diplomats, including Germany's foreign minister, standing at his side, Arafat explicitly condemned Friday's bombing and said he would "do all that is possible to achieve an immediate and unconditional, real and effective, cease-fire."
Still, Palestinians were girding for a fight. Arafat's Fatah movement went on high alert, issued a mobilization call and ordered its men to be on the lookout for Israeli forces. Palestinian police evacuated their posts throughout the West Bank and Gaza. In Ramallah, employees stayed home from work, and mothers collected their children early from school. Downtown streets were relatively deserted on what would normally have been a bustling day. United Nations employees were bused out of Gaza.
Palestinian radio and television, which repeatedly broadcast Arafat's cease-fire offer, also instructed citizens to stock up on food and to stay in their homes.
Israeli officials greeted Arafat's statements with hefty skepticism. Concrete actions, not words, will be essential to demonstrate his seriousness, they said.
An aide to Sharon said that while "no one expects Arafat to deliver," the government was prepared to wait the "hours" that it would take for his orders to filter down through the troops.
"I hope Arafat's statement is not a trick, since this time he is expected to show results in the field to prove he's ordered the shooting to stop," Ben-Eliezer said. "I do not see him busy stopping Hamas. I do not see him busy stopping the Islamic Jihad. We have to wait and see whether his sugarcoated explanations have any real value."
Israel wants Arafat to rearrest militants of the radical Islamic Jihad and Hamas groups who were released at the start of the intifada and who have claimed responsibility for most of the recent bombings. Israeli officials are also demanding that Arafat issue explicit hold-fire instructions to the many armed militias who profess loyalty to the Palestinian leadership and that they dismantle training camps that Israel claims are used to prepare attacks against Israeli citizens.
However, the full extent of Arafat's ability to control Palestinian armed factions has been in doubt for some time. As president of the Palestinian Authority, he remains the single most powerful Palestinian official, but some gunmen follow their own agendas.
Arafat risks international condemnation if he does not deliver on a cease-fire. On the other hand, he risks public wrath if he appears to be making concessions to the Israelis without a substantial political gain to show for the losses of the last eight months.
In the past, terrorism was reined in by a combination of Arafat's decision to arrest militants and Palestinian society's rejection of Hamas and radical tactics. But the dynamics have changed as more than 450 Palestinians have been killed in the ongoing intifada, and polls show growing Palestinian support for violence against Israelis.
"People are tired of death, killing and destruction, but they have reached a point where there is no going back," Fouad Moughrabi, a Palestinian scholar who has written extensively about Palestinian society, said in his Ramallah office. "It is too late to go back to status quo ante, whatever Arafat does."
Israel's decision to delay retaliation was also a tacit acknowledgment that force alone does not stop suicide bombers. As Israel has cranked up its retaliatory strikes, including the use of F-16 warplanes last month, the death toll among Israelis has only increased.
"The blood boils in us all, enraged by the brutal murder of such young people," said Matan Vilnai, a member of Sharon's Cabinet and a former army deputy chief of staff. "But we must not lose our wits. The enemy wants us to take foolish acts and ultimately make us look like the ones responsible for the violence. Therefore, we must exercise good judgment."
There were conflicting reports about who was responsible for Friday's attack, and rival claims of responsibility. An Israeli military source said the bomber had been identified and was from the West Bank, but this source would not disclose additional information.
The explosive device the bomber used contained ball bearings, nails and screws that exacerbated victims' wounds. All bodies had been identified by Saturday. The youngest victim was 14; all were teens except a 21-year-old and a 32-year-old; and two, 16 and 18, were sisters.
Like most of the dead, many of the wounded were the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
The religious funeral society that oversees all Jewish burials in Israel notified families that it would refuse to bury two of the dead, who were deemed insufficiently Jewish because their parents are in Jewish-Christian marriages. Incensed politicians who represent the Russian community said they would fight the decision, and several kibbutzim offered plots for secular burial.
Meanwhile, Israelis angered and disgusted by the bombing turned their emotions on Arabs. Thousands of Israelis rioted in Tel Aviv near the site of Friday night's blast and at the Defense Ministry as Sharon's Cabinet met, where they chanted "War!" And "Death to the Arabs!"
The mobs attempted to torch the Hassan Bek mosque in Tel Aviv and hurled stones and bottles at Muslim worshipers inside, who threw stones back. Israeli police eventually rescued the worshipers.