JERUSALEM -- Israel approved subsidies for Jews living in the West Bank yesterday in the latest move of an escalating confrontation between the Jewish state and the Arabs.
The decision would restore to a large group of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalistic, Jewish constituency benefits that had been frozen by the previous government, which signed a historic peace treaty with the Palestinians.
The action by the Israeli Cabinet yesterday came within two days of a drive-by shooting outside the West Bank settlement town of Beit El in which Etta Tzur and her 12-year-old son, Ephraim, were killed.
A car believed to be involved in the shootings was later found within the Palestinian-controlled city of Ramallah.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical Palestinian group based in Damascus, Syria, which rejected the Israeli-PLO accords of 1993, claimed responsibility for the attack.
George Habash, the 71-year-old leader of the PFLP, speaking in Damascus yesterday, specifically criticized the expansion of settlements, although the abiding ambition of the Jerusalem-born physician is the elimination of the state of Israel.
"The increase of Israel's repressive measures against our Palestinian people and the expansion of settlements require our masses in the occupied homeland to renew their intifada [uprising] against Israel," Habash said.
In the Gaza Strip, supporters of the Islamic militant group Hamas commemorated the group's founding, and said militants it would mark the anniversary of the killing last January of its master bomb-maker by renewing attacks against Israel.
Also yesterday, a number of rockets fired from south Lebanon landed in northern Israel, the first such attack since an April cease-fire ended Israel's military strike on Lebanon against Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas.
The Israeli army spokesman's office said there were no injuries or damages.
Netanyahu, who was elected prime minister of Israel last May with the help of the mostly conservative and religious settlers movement, attended the funeral Thursday of the two Israelis killed in the attack.
There, he vowed to maintain Israel's presence in the territories occupied since the 1967 war.
The Netanyahu government has taken several steps to expand settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, actions that Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world say violates the 1993 peace agreements.
The tax breaks, if funded, would be another incentive for families to move to those areas where thousands of Palestinians live.
At the Cabinet meeting yesterday, Netanyahu rejected ministers' calls to build new settlements.
"We must not make a decision which means nullifying the Oslo process. We shall fight terrorism and, at the same time, continue the peace process," he said.
A statement from the government of Palestinian authority Chairman Yasser Arafat called the Cabinet decision "a direct call for violence and declaration of war on the Palestinian people and its National Authority."
David Bar Illan, an adviser to the prime minister, said last night that the government does not yet know how it will fund the benefits.
"In this year of budget cutting, there is no way this will be added to the budget," said Bar Illan. "It will be either taken out of something else, or all benefits would be lowered equally."
The benefits have been offered to Israelis since the founding of the state as an incentive to move to less populated areas, Bar Illan said. Israelis who live in parts of the Negev, the Golan Heights, the Galilee and Gaza Strip now receive the tax breaks.
"All we did was to remove a deliberate discrimination that the government [of Yitzhak Rabin] used as a confidence-building measure with the Palestinians," he said.
Leaders of the settler movement who have criticized Netanyahu for not doing enough to support their members characterized the Cabinet action as a "good beginning."
"It is a Zionist answer [to the terrorist attack], but it is not an ample enough Zionist answer," said Aharon Domb, a spokesman for the settlers council.
Domb said the settlers want the government to approve more housing units for the settlements. If it doesn't, the settlers council might establish its own new neighborhoods.
Criticism of decision
Opponents of the Netanyahu government criticized the Cabinet decision.
"It will destroy the peace process," said Avraham Shohat, a minister in the previous Labor government. He said settlement expansion "cannot develop without a conflict with the Arabs."
Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai reiterated yesterday the government's demand that the Palestinian authority "act vigorously" against terrorist organizations that have targeted Israelis.
Arafat apparently began a crackdown yesterday of the PFLP followers in the West Bank and Gaza. Abdel-Rahim Mallouh, a group leader, told Reuters that Palestinian police arrested dozens of PFLP activists on the West Bank.
In the Gaza Strip, some 20,000 Palestinians jammed an outdoor soccer arena in the town of Khan Yunis to attend a rally of the militant Muslim group Hamas.
Hamas claims responsibility for the suicide bombings last February and March that killed dozens of Israelis and contributed to the downfall of the Labor Party, which negotiated peace with the Palestinians.
Sign of support
The turnout represented a clear sign of Palestinian support for the organization, which has also suffered under a crackdown by the Palestinian authority.
The authority, which organized the crackdown, issued a permit for the rally. The event featured tributes to some of the group's most popular martyrs, including master bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash.
The stage featured portraits of them as well as of Arafat and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who is in an Israeli jail.
Near the photographs of two martyrs was a sign that read, "We worship God by killing the Jews."
Speakers at the daylong rally applauded the organization's past and proclaimed its health and viability.
"Hamas is alive now. It didn't die, and you came to prove that," said Ismail Haniya, a top Hamas official and master of ceremonies.
Although the organization rejects the Oslo peace accords and ++ boycotted Palestinian elections last year, the group plans to open a political office in Gaza, an indication perhaps that the group realizes it must reach an accommodation with Arafat's Palestinian authority.
"Hamas is part of the land, and nobody can eradicate it," said Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar. "We and the Palestinian authority and the Popular Front have the full right to be here and express ourselves.
"We demand a chance for the multisystem, for the democratic process, to run."
Zahar, however, said the group's decision to establish a political office didn't mean it was renouncing its military ways. "If it's serving the Palestinian people, [we will use it]," he said. "If it's not, we won't."
Pub Date: 12/14/96