JERUSALEM – A defiant Yasser Arafat said Monday he was not rattled by new calls in Israel for harsher strikes against his Palestinian Authority, while Israeli security forces said they intercepted five Palestinian assailants, including two would-be suicide bombers, over a 24-hour period.
The Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, said it was behind Sunday's failed attack on a military base in northern Israel in which two assailants were killed — one in a gunbattle with police and the second in an explosion he set off while being pursued by officers.
A leader of the militia said Monday that there would be no letup in attacks. "We will continue our attacks on Israeli cities and against the Israelis as long as [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon continues his aggression against our people," said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of Israeli reprisal.
Also Sunday, three suspected Palestinian assailants were caught by Israeli forces near the West Bank town of Ramallah, security officials said. Two brothers, one of whom carried a pistol, were arrested by a special police unit. In another incident, a would-be suicide bomber was seized near Ramallah, media reports said.
Israel's military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi, said Israel has concrete warnings about more suicide attacks being planned. The Israeli military does not have the tools to prevent such attacks, Zeevi told Israel TV's Channel 2.
In the same interview, Zeevi said the Palestinians' homemade Qassam-2 rockets pose no threat to Israel's main population centers, contradicting claims made by other senior military officials, including the defense minister. Last week, Israel launched its most extensive operation in the Gaza Strip in 16 months of fighting in response to rocket fire, and five armed Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire.
In Israel, debate intensified over how to stop Palestinian attacks after seven Israelis, including two teen-agers, were killed in a three-day period last week.
Sharon convened senior Cabinet ministers at his farm in the southern Negev Desert on Sunday for a strategy debate. Several ministers reportedly demanded that he escalate military strikes against the Palestinians, including reoccupying areas now controlled by the Palestinians.
Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said Israel's policy of not harming Arafat physically remained unchanged, but should it find proof that the Palestinian leader was directly connected to an attack on Israelis, "we will have to reconsider our present policy."
The Yediot Ahronot daily complained in a front-page commentary that Sharon had no strategy. "He [Sharon] lives from day to day, from attack to attack, from retaliation to retaliation," wrote commentator Nahum Barnea.
Referring to the broad support Sharon enjoyed in the past year, despite Israel's bad situation, Barnea wrote that Sharon "should not be surprised that the people who followed him with their eyes shut, are starting to open their eyes."
Arafat, who has been confined by Israel to his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said Monday he did not fear an Israeli strike against him.
"Welcome, I am waiting for them, but they have to understand that the Palestinian people will never be frightened by tanks or F-16s," Arafat said in a speech to thousands of visiting Palestinian school children. "They are still determined to achieve their rights and we will keep fighting until we reach that."
On the dovish end of Sharon's broad coalition government, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Sunday held more talks with Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia. Peres and Qureia are working on a blueprint for a peace deal in three stages — a cease-fire, Israel's recognition in principle of a Palestinian state and negotiations on its borders and the terms of Palestinian independence to conclude within a year.
The plan has been dismissed by Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is the head of Peres' Labor Party, as unrealistic.
In Sunday's foiled attack, police stopped a suspicious car at the entrance to an army training base near the city of Hadera, six miles from the West Bank. Police said one of its two occupants started shooting, and they returned fire.
One terrorist was shot and killed, said police commander Yaakov Raz. "The other saw he could not get through a roadblock and set off a bomb he was carrying, killing himself."
Six other people were wounded, including three policemen, rescue officials said.