JERUSALEM – Trying to prevent another terror attack during the Jewish holidays, Israel enforced an open-ended lockdown of Palestinian towns Wednesday and ordered two more battalions into the West Bank (search) and Gaza Strip (search).
The closure was extended as questions arose over the health of Yasser Arafat (search) after he appeared in public looking haggard and disoriented. Advisers denied a report he has suffered a mild heart attack, saying Arafat -- the leading champion of the Palestinian cause over four decades -- is weak from a stomach flu.
Over the weekend, the 74-year-old Arafat installed an emergency Cabinet -- his main objective apparently being to block Israeli action against him in reprisal for a homicide bombing by Palestinian militants. New premier Ahmed Qureia (search) was tapped by Arafat for the job a month ago but has since struggled to form a Cabinet.
On Wednesday, Qureia presided over the first meeting of his eight-member emergency Cabinet, which in principle can govern for one month. He said he would seek parliament approval Thursday for the ministers, turning them into a regular Cabinet, and that he hoped to broaden his government eventually.
Qureia's success is key to efforts to salvage the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which foresees an end to three years of violence and a Palestinian state by 2005. It has been mired for months with neither side carrying out key requirements.
The United States and Israel say they will judge Qureia on his ability to try to halt terror attacks. Qureia has said he hopes to begin truce talks with Israel quickly, but that -- like his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas -- he will use only persuasion, not force, to get Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups to halt attacks in Israel.
In the most recent attack, an Islamic Jihad bomber killed 19 Israelis in the port city of Haifa on Saturday. In response, Israel on Sunday bombed what it said was an Islamic Jihad base deep inside Syria.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have threatened retaliation for the airstrike and for arrests and killings of top activists by Israel in recent weeks.
Reflecting the tensions, the Israeli military announced late Tuesday it was extending the lockdown of the West Bank and Gaza, banning Palestinians from Israel and cordoning off Palestinian towns.
Despite the measures, violence continued Wednesday. Three Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously, in a Palestinian shooting attack on a West Bank road near the city of Nablus.
During the last three years of fighting, Israel has enforced strict travel bans. On Wednesday the army announced that Palestinian traffic would be banned from West Bank roads patrolled by the Israeli military until Sunday. The army said it was effort to reduce attacks, and said it was directly related to Wednesday night's shooting.
Blanket closures, including travel bans within the Palestinian areas, are usually imposed during Jewish holidays, and restrictions are eased -- though not lifted -- once the holidays are over. The most recent one, Yom Kippur, ended Monday, and the next one, the weeklong Succot holiday, begins at sundown Friday.
However, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the strict closure to continue, reportedly at least through Oct. 22, or several days after the end of Succot. Mofaz reportedly went against the recommendations of security officials who said the level of alerts about possible terror attacks was not unusual.
Mofaz also ordered two more battalions -- about 800 soldiers -- sent to the West Bank and Gaza, canceling leaves and training courses for soldiers. Orders for mobilizing reserve soldiers also are being drawn up, the Israeli military said.
"Many soldiers are streaming into the territories," military correspondent Roni Daniel said on Israel TV's Channel Two. "There is a very real possibility that reservists will be sent to reinforce them."
Daniel said Israel is not planning another major offensive, but is stepping up efforts to prevent another major bombing.
Israel is running out of responses to homicide attacks. The United States opposes expelling Arafat, and launching another airstrike outside Israel's borders could set off a regional conflagration.
Jerusalem Police Chief Mickey Levy said he knew of specific warnings about plans to carry out attacks in the city. "Just a few days ago, we caught another assailant en route to carrying out an attack in the capital," he said.
On Wednesday, Israel announced the arrests of three Palestinians in an Aug. 19 bus bombing that killed 23 people in Jerusalem. Authorities said the suspects were linked to Hamas.
Advisers to Arafat, meanwhile, denied a report he suffered a mild heart attack last week. They said he is battling a stomach flu and continues to be weak.
In brief appearances this week, Arafat looked drawn and pale and his lower lip trembled considerably. He spoke with great effort and with prompting from his chief adviser, Nabil Abu Rdeneh. At times, he appeared in a daze, staring straight ahead.
"He had a stomach flu but he never had a heart attack," Dr. Yousef Goussous, one of four physicians who examined Arafat last week, told The Associated Press.
On Sept. 29, Arafat's personal physician, Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, rushed from Jordan to Arafat's compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah to examine the Palestinian leader. At the time, Arafat had been unable to keep down food for three days, and Palestinian sources said he feared he had been poisoned.
Al-Kurdi said after the checkup that Arafat was in relatively good health. However, Arafat has not improved since that visit, his aides said on condition of anonymity. Arafat continues to pick at his food and requires a lot of rest.
Arafat has been confined to his compound for nearly two years.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said Israel "probably would" permit Arafat to leave the compound if he needs to be treated at a hospital. "We're following it [Arafat's health]," Peled said. "I wouldn't say we're worried, or upset or anything. We're simply following it."