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Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 17:34 GMT
Election increases pressure to act
An Israeli soldier holds his machine gun during a search operation along the streets of the West Bank of Hebron
Military response to ambush seems inevitable
Stuart Hughes

With elections here just over two months away, a firm Israeli military response to Friday's Hebron attack seems inevitable.

The double ambush left at least 12 dead, including three Jewish settlers. Ultra-nationalists in the caretaker cabinet led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon count settlers among its core constituency, heightening the pressure on Mr Sharon to act decisively.

Egypt and Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction are trying to persuade the militant Islamic group Hamas to end their attacks on civilians in Israel until after the elections on January 28.

However, even this ceasefire plan would not have stopped Friday evening's attack in Hebron.

Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility, is not part of the negotiations and any moratorium would not apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon
Pressure to act decisively

The United States is urging Israel to show restraint as it gears up for possible military action against Iraq. It is fearful of inflaming Arab opinion still further and provoking violence across the Middle East.

For the moment, then, any operation to expel the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, from his Ramallah headquarters seems unlikely.

A senior Sharon aide, Dov Weissglass, said on Saturday that although the question of expelling Arafat was being examined "almost hourly," the time was not right for such a move.

The latest opinion polls here show the centre-left Labour party trailing badly in the polls. Some indications suggest the right-wing Likud party could nearly double its strength in the general election.

In addition, three newspaper polls published on Friday indicated that Ariel Sharon would comfortably see off Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge for the Likud leadership.

With the hawkish Mr Sharon, Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz set to occupy key government positions after the election, any Israeli restraint could be short-lived.


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