JERUSALEM - Israel ordered yesterday that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remain confined to the West Bank city of Ramallah, despite the arrests of most of those suspected in the killing of an Israeli tourism minister.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said that jailing the suspects in Rehavem Zeevi's assassination in October was the primary condition for releasing Arafat from nearly three months of virtual house arrest, hemmed in by tanks parked near the entrance to his walled compound.
Palestinian officials condemned the Cabinet decision as provocative and said it proves that Israel cannot be trusted. They arrested three of the four suspects in the killing Thursday, and said the fourth is at large.
But Sharon said only part of his conditions were met. He gave in slightly, allowing Arafat out of his office complex and ordering the tanks pushed back.
"Arafat now has to prove the seriousness of his intentions in fighting terror," said security Cabinet member Matan Vilnai, a Labor Party member and a retired army general. "He has to take further steps so that we shall be convinced he means it."
The decision represents a compromise designed to respond to international calls to free Arafat and at the same time hold together Sharon's coalition government, whose far right members threatened to pull out if Arafat was set free and whose leftist members vowed to quit should the siege remain.
But what Israeli leaders called an easing of restrictions, Palestinian called more of the same. They said that despite the tanks ringing his compound, Arafat frequently had left the building to pray at Ramallah mosques or see doctors at a hospital, rendering the new rules meaningless.
"Sharon is going to the path of war and destruction," chief Palestinian negotiator and Arafat aide Saeb Erekat said. "I hope this will be an eye opener to the U.S. and the European Union to stop Sharon before it is too late. This government has no political program other than to continue the path of destruction."
In protest, Palestinian leaders canceled a joint security meeting with Israel yesterday that was to have been brokered by the CIA, and said that three top officials would not meet with Sharon today as had been scheduled.
That casts doubt on a tentative seven-day cease-fire that had been worked out during secret meetings with both sides over the weekend and was to be solidified at yesterday's session.
It follows one of the bloodiest weeks of the 17-month Palestinian uprising, during which 11 Israelis were killed in terror strikes and more than 40 Palestinians died in a series of punishing reprisal attacks by Israel's army.
'Why stop now?'
Israel's right-wing Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau had urged that Arafat be kept under siege, saying that a week of military strikes prompted the Palestinians to "ask for a cease-fire. So we're talking about a correct policy which proves itself. We are succeeding, so why stop now?"
But Yossi Sarid, the leader of the opposition Meretz Party, called the Cabinet's ruling "an absurd decision. Now Arafat can move around to the grocery store and do his laundry, but all this is a continuation of an effort to degrade him."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres cautioned that "confining Arafat to Ramallah causes Israel diplomatic damage."
Sharon's intention at confining Arafat was not only to ensure that Zeevi's killers were caught, but also to embarrass and isolate the Palestinian leader, whom he continues to call irrelevant.
The restrictions keep Arafat from the territories he controls, his seaside villa in Gaza and from shuttling around the world to visit foreign heads of state.
But it also has made Arafat, who embodies the Palestinian movement, more popular on the street. And while Sharon kept him confined to his office, he did not close off Ramallah, allowing Arafat daily visits from journalists, foreign dignitaries and even a group of Israeli peace activists.
Over time, Sharon's demands of Arafat increased beyond the Zeevi assassination, and he added the arrests of the Palestinians involved in the Karine-A weapons ship that Israel seized in January in the Red Sea to the conditions for lifting the siege.
Arafat has arrested several people involved in the Karine-A incident and said he can't locate one or two others.
Last month, Palestinian police arrested the political head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had taken responsibility for killing Zeevi.
On Thursday, during the height of bombing runs by Israeli warplanes, Palestinian police arrested the suspected shooter, his accomplice and one of the Popular Front leaders who Israel said coordinated the hit. A fourth operative remains at large.
Conditions to follow
Sharon's security Cabinet said yesterday that it wasn't enough. But they set up a series of conditions that Arafat must follow for his travel restrictions to be gradually eased. They include arresting the fourth Zeevi suspect.
Then, the Cabinet said, Arafat would be allowed to travel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with each trip being personally approved by Sharon.
If violence is kept at a minimum, Arafat will be allowed to attend the Arab League's conference in Beirut at the end of March, at which the future of the Palestinian uprising will top the agenda.
Sharon also would like the suspects in Zeevi's killing to be extradited to Israel. Agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel do not require either side to extradite suspects if they are to be tried in their respective homeland.
Should Arafat ever get out of Ramallah and return to his primary residence in Gaza, he will find the place in shambles.
Israel's army has repeatedly hit the seaside compound from the air and sea, the latest in a three-hour barrage last week during which a dozen missiles were fired into the complex.
Arafat's home, a villa, was not struck, but the force of the blasts blew out windows. But his security compound, his yacht and his helicopter fleet are in ruins.