Israel Plans to Close W. Bank Universities

Times Staff Writer

Angered by the deadliest suicide attack in nearly a year, Israel vowed Monday to shut down three universities in the Palestinian territories and restrict the travel of Palestinian leaders in an effort to crack down on militants.

A six-week stretch of relative peace ended Sunday night, when a pair of extremists blew themselves up in a rundown enclave of Tel Aviv, killing nearly two dozen bystanders and wounding more than 100. A splinter faction of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant wing associated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility. The group identified the bombers as young men from the West Bank city of Nablus.

Arafat was quick to condemn the bombings. But Israeli officials, who have complained for years that the Palestinian Authority president neglects to control militants and must be ousted, moved swiftly to retaliate.

"Unfortunately, we've only got more proof now that we're talking about people here who are involved in terror," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled. "Either they know about it and support it quietly, or they look the other way and condone it."

These are tense times, even by Israeli standards. Trapped between profound public anger at the renewed bloodshed on the one hand, and the political pressures of approaching elections and a possible U.S.-led war with Iraq on the other, Israel shied away Monday from an aggressive military response.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet decided to shut down three West Bank Palestinian universities: Bir Zeit near Ramallah, An Najah in Nablus and Islamic College in Hebron, according to Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin. Prisoners interrogated by Israel have described those campuses as recruitment grounds for militant organizations, Gissin said.

"We have evidence that Islamic cells have been operating within the confines of the universities, abusing the freedom granted to universities of higher learning," Gissin said. "When academic freedom is abused and misused, we have a legitimate right to stop it."

The universities will be closed "as long as we have this wave of terrorist activity," Gissin said.

Blue-collar Israelis, illegal immigrants and young soldiers died in the Tel Aviv blasts. In cemeteries on the outskirts of the city Monday, families laid the remains of their sons and daughters in the ground. Two of the bodies had yet to be identified late Monday. The remains of illegal immigrants were to be shipped home to Ghana, Romania and Bulgaria.

"This is cruel terrorism," Sharon told reporters while visiting the wounded at a Tel Aviv hospital. "It makes no distinction between a child, a woman, a man, an Israeli and a foreigner." Officials said Sunday that in addition to themselves, the bombers had killed 23 people in their attack, but on Monday that toll was lowered by one.

The Palestinian Central Council was to meet Thursday in Ramallah to review a draft of the Palestinian constitution, but Israeli officials said Monday that they will block the meeting. Israel also forbade a Palestinian delegation to travel to London later this month to discuss reform and eventual statehood with international mediators.

"We think the conference in London is a propagandistic place to advance the [Palestinian] agenda," said Uzi Arad, a longtime advisor to Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "There's no reason on Earth why we should say, 'Yeah, fine, travel through our country and we'll roll out the red carpet for you.' "

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw telephoned Netanyahu on Monday to urge Israel to reconsider its stance against the conference. Netanyahu replied that Arafat is doing nothing to stop the terror, and that Palestinian leaders should stay home and confront their internal strife.

The bombings rattled Israel just weeks before Jan. 28 elections, when voters will decide whether to reelect Sharon of the Likud Party, who has struck hard in response to Palestinian attacks. Sharon's opponent, Labor's left-leaning Amram Mitzna, has expressed willingness to hold discussions with Arafat.

"When we have these attacks it improves the chances of right-wing parties," said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "People get very angry, very frustrated and emotional, and start looking for retaliation."

Meanwhile, the Palestinian territories awoke Monday to a familiar pattern of curfew, checkpoints and arrest. Gaza City came under rocket attack hours before dawn. An army spokesman said Israeli soldiers arrested more than 20 militants in raids across the West Bank.

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