JERUSALEM – Israeli forces detained 19 Palestinians in nighttime raids in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the military said Friday, hours after a blast in Gaza killed a senior militia leader.
As Israeli pressed efforts to arrest terror suspects, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and outgoing military chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz both called for replacement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Sharon indicated his policy is coordinated with the United States.
In interviews printed and broadcast Friday to mark the end of his four-year term as chief of staff of the Israeli military, Mofaz said that Israel should expel Arafat.
Though the idea has some support in Israel's Cabinet, it has never been approved, and Mofaz came under stiff criticism for voicing that opinion in the past. Mofaz steps down Tuesday.
Responding to charges that he took political stands while in uniform, Mofaz told Israel Radio, "Those who agreed with me called it a professional opinion. Those who disagreed called it something else." Mofaz is expected to enter politics with a right-wing party.
Arafat resolved a two-day internal standoff, meeting late Thursday with Jibril Rajoub, who agreed to step down as commander of Preventive Security, the strongest security arm in the West Bank. Rajoub, second in power in the West Bank only to Arafat, had defied a dismissal order issued late Tuesday.
Arafat appointed Jenin governor Zuheir al-Manasra to replace Rajoub and offered the Jenin post to Rajoub. However, Rajoub did not accept the job, and officers in Preventive Security said they would not work under the new commander, raising speculation that the security force might be disbanded.
Rajoub is often mentioned as a possible successor to Arafat and has had close ties with Israeli officials, who say he is one of the few Palestinian leaders not linked directly to terror attacks.
Arafat has been under Israeli and U.S. pressure to restructure his competing and overlapping security forces and direct them to stop terror attacks against Israel.
In the Gaza Strip, a blast blew apart a car and killed Jihad Amerin, 38, the Gaza leader of al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militia affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, and Nael Namera, 27, a lieutenant in the Palestinians' preventive security forces.
Palestinians blamed Israel for the bombing. The Israeli military had no comment.
In Gaza Friday, about 5,000 people calling for revenge against Israel marched alongside the bodies of the two Palestinians in a funeral procession. The bodies were covered with Palestinian flags.
During 21 months of fighting, Israel has claimed responsibility for killing dozens of Palestinian extremists and militia leaders in helicopter raids and is also blamed for bomb attacks that have killed others.
Israel has acknowledged some of the bombings, claimed others were "work accidents" involving Palestinian bombs that went off prematurely, and refused to comment on others. Palestinians charge that the Israeli killings are assassinations aimed at wiping out their leadership.
Overnight, Israeli forces arrested a Palestinian in Gaza and 18 others in the West Bank. A military statement said they were "suspected of terrorist activity."
The Israelis have been conducting nightly arrest sweeps in the West Bank and less frequent operations in Gaza, operating in cities and towns where soldiers have imposed curfews and also entering villages.
The military said three suspects were arrested in Jericho, the only one of the eight main Palestinian population centers that has been spared an Israeli incursion in the past two weeks. Israeli forces continue to hold the other centers, enforcing curfews.
Speaking at an economic conference Thursday, Sharon hinted that he had been working secretly with the United States for several months on a peace plan for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
"Everybody said I did not have a plan," he said, "and so no one looked for a plan." Sharon's critics charge that he relates to the Palestinians only in military terms.
Sharon endorsed President Bush's Mideast policy speech from June 21. Bush called for replacing the Palestinian leadership with new heads "not compromised by terror."
Sharon said. "If the Palestinians are wise enough to free themselves from the regime of murder and terror, they will be able to achieve a life of freedom on their land."
Bush's formula also included points Sharon has opposed, like dismantling Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Sharon did not comment directly on those points.
Sharon did not outline his peace plan. In the past, he has called for a long-term interim agreement to be followed by a peace treaty, saying that a Palestinian state is inevitable. The Palestinians reject the concept of an interim peace agreement.