Israel suspended contacts with the Palestinian Authority and slapped tough travel restrictions on the West Bank after Palestinian gunmen killed three young Israelis and wounded five in two drive-by shootings near Jewish settlements.
The Palestinian attack near the Gush Etzion block of settlements on Sunday was the deadliest since July. It followed Israeli intelligence warnings that Palestinian militants, who claim they drove Israel out of Gaza by force, would now shift their focus to the West Bank. Israel pulled out of Gaza in September in a unilateral move.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group with ties to the ruling Fatah party, claimed responsibility. However, Israeli media quoted security officials as saying they believed the Islamic militant Hamas might have been involved.
The attacks renew international pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on militants. Abbas is to meet later this week with Washington with US President George W. Bush. Abbas has been reluctant to take harsh measures against militants. Involvement of gunmen with ties to Fatah's Sunday attacks would underscore his failure to impose control, whether by force or by persuasion.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the shootings were "unfortunate" and accused the gunmen of trying to sabotage efforts to revive peace talks. He urged Israel to reconsider the travel restrictions and suspension of contacts, saying "angry messages, collective punishment and violence will just add to the complexities."
Erekat said Israeli negotiators failed to show up for a meeting on Sunday evening on the re-opening of the Rafah terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border. The opening of the crossing is crucial for the economic recovery of Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said all contacts have been halted.
"In Israel, we have no desire to return to a reality of daily attacks against Israeli civilians," Regev said. "We want to send a very strong and sharp message to the Palestinians, and the temporary suspension of talks is that message."
Israel responded with tough new measures limiting movement in the West Bank, security officials said, adding that the restrictions would be in place for a long time.
The West Bank towns of Hebron and Bethlehem, closest to the Gush Etzion attack, were sealed, and private Palestinian-owned cars were barred from the West Bank's main north-south road, Route 60. Soldiers were checking cars on Route 60 yesterday.
Arrest raids will be stepped up, security officials said. In the past month, Israel has rounded up some 700 activists in the Islamic militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad, disrupting Hamas' preparations for Jan. 25 parliament elections. Overnight, soldiers arrested 19 wanted Palestinians in the West Bank, the army said.
The decisions to restrict movement in the West Bank were made at high-level consultations led by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. They reversed a relaxing of restrictions gradually implemented since a February ceasefire.
The limitations, in place for most of the past five years of fighting, crippled the Palestinian economy and caused widespread hardships.
Israel has demanded the Palestinians dismantle militant groups if it wants to restart peace talks.
"The Palestinian Authority has to move from the talking stage to the action stage," Mofaz said. "We will not be able to continue in this process if the Palestinian Authority does not start taking concrete actions against the terror groups."
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