Sharon Defends Airstrikes Against Palestinians

In the wake of two days of violence that left six Israelis and 16 Palestinians dead, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was convening his Cabinet Sunday to prepare for possible further outbreaks on Monday's "Jerusalem Day."

Sharon, who is receiving harsh criticism for using warplanes Friday to rocket Palestinian police buildings, was quoted in published comments Sunday as saying Israeli will do "what it takes" to protect its citizens. The rocketing was in apparent retaliation for a suicide bombing which killed five Israelis at a shopping center Friday morning.

A series of marches have been planned in Jerusalem Monday in support of keeping the city as the Israeli capital, and security has been tightened in the region.

The Palestinians contend that the section of Jerusalem occupied by Israel in 1967 — which includes the Old City with its Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy sites — is the future Palestinian capital.

In Cairo, a meeting of Arab foreign ministers and delegates asked Arab governments Saturday to sever political contact with Israel until it ceased military action against Palestinians. But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Sunday that his country and Jordan, which have both signed peace treaties with the Jewish state, will not give up their efforts to relaunch peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In Israel, politicians and analysts questioned whether the massive retaliation for Friday's suicide bombing — which for the first time in 34 years included warplane strikes against Palestinian targets — would have any effect.

"We will do what it takes and use everything at our disposal to protect the citizens of Israel," Sharon told the daily Yediot Ahronot. "The Americans understand that we cannot take any more."

But there were also signs Israel hoped for stepped-up U.S. intervention.

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer asked U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to do everything possible to "convince [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat to stop the violence," Ben-Eliezer's office said in a statement.

Former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel urged that former U.S. Senator George Mitchell — who heads an international commission investigating the causes of the eight months of violence — be appointed as a Mideast envoy. Liel told Israel Radio it was necessary to find "someone who will keep up political efforts even if the sides are not directly engaged... I think that Mitchell has become the hope of the region."

A draft of the Mitchell commission report calls for an end to violence, but also says Israel should stop all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has insisted that some construction must continue in existing settlements to account for "natural growth."

Polls in Israel have show that most Israelis strongly support Sharon three months after his election but would welcome a settlement freeze in exchange for a cease-fire.

And on Sunday, there was strong criticism of the weekend's retaliatory strikes as well.

Opposition leader Yossi Sarid said that the Palestinians killed were not necessarily the ones involved in violence. "Those attacking us want high casualties on our side — but it's also clear they seek high casualties on their side [to] help trigger the cycle of extremism on their side," he said.

Former air force chief Eitan Ben-Eliyahu said the use of F-16 fighter jets could backfire, and Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh, a former general, complained the Cabinet was not consulted.

Commentators said Sharon acted primarily to placate public opinion.

"One would expect the prime minister, the foreign minister, the chief of staff and his generals to be more levelheaded," wrote Hemi Shalev in the Maariv newspaper. "Militarily speaking the F-16 achieved negligible results — but in terms of diplomacy and public relations Israel bombed itself."

In the Gaza Strip, tensions continued to simmer Sunday.

Palestinian security officials said Israeli naval boats fired on Palestinian police positions off the Gaza coast. The army denied the report, calling it "baseless." Palestinian officials also said that Israeli forces entered a Palestinian-controlled area near the Egyptian border and opened tank fire on the Rafah refugee camp. The army said it was checking into the report.

Eight months of violence have killed 469 people on the Palestinian side and 84 on the Israeli side.