Arafat responds to Israel's warning, says, 'I don't care'


JERUSALEM - The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who has been confined to his West Bank compound for nearly two years, said yesterday that he was not troubled by warnings from Israel that it could act against him.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in interviews published Friday that Arafat had "no insurance policy" against Israeli action.

In his first response, Arafat said: "I don't care for it. I am caring for my people, for our children, for our women, for our students."

He spoke to journalists outside his badly damaged compound in Ramallah in the West Bank after meeting with the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Michel Sabbah.

In violence yesterday, the Palestinian militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for an overnight shooting in which a gunman killed an Israeli man and wounded his 12-year-old daughter at a West Bank settlement.

The gunman was then shot and killed by Israeli soldiers.

Hamas said the attack was in retaliation for an Israeli helicopter strike on March 22 that killed the group's founder and leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Reuters reported.

The shooting yesterday was the first killing of an Israeli Jew since a suicide bombing on March 14 by Hamas that claimed 10 Israeli lives.

Hamas and other Palestinian factions have threatened to step up attacks in response to the killing of the sheik, and Israel's security forces have been on high alert.

Israel begins the weeklong holiday of Passover tomorrow night, and Palestinians have frequently carried out attacks during holiday periods.

In the latest attack, which took place about 1 a.m. yesterday, the gunman apparently slipped through a hole in a perimeter fence in the Jewish settlement of Avnei Hefetz, near the Palestinian town of Tulkarm, the Israeli military said.

The gunman fired into a house and wounded the girl, prompting her father to go outside with a pistol in search of the attacker. The father was then shot and died of his wounds. Soldiers rushed to the scene and killed the gunman, the military said.

Meanwhile, an Israeli Cabinet minister again warned that Palestinian leaders linked to violence could be targets for attack by Israel.

"It is important that those who send suicide bombers know that they no longer benefit from the least immunity, as the prime minister said," Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel's internal security minister, told Israel radio.

Sharon has promised President Bush that he will not harm Arafat, and Israeli officials say that still stands. However, in a contradictory move, Sharon's Cabinet agreed in principle last year that Arafat should be removed. Cabinet ministers have said the options could range from arresting Arafat to sending him into exile or killing him.

In recent months, Israel has given no indication that it was preparing to act against Arafat, who in two years has left his compound once, for a brief trip around the West Bank.

But the killing of Yassin has revived debate on Israel's willingness to move against Palestinian leaders linked to violence. Israel says Arafat encourages Palestinian attacks and has refused to order the Palestinian security forces to break up armed groups.

The Israeli policy of targeted killings has been widely criticized, even by the United States. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said Friday in Washington that "our position on such questions - the exile or assassination of Yasser Arafat - is very well known."

"We're opposed and we've made that very clear to the government of Israel," he said.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said a Palestinian man was killed Friday night in the central Gaza Strip, near the boundary fence with Israel.

An army patrol spotted two "suspicious figures" near the fence and opened fire, killing one, the military said. The dead man was carrying two explosives, and the second man escaped, the military added.

The army also said that troops seized 23 suspected militants in an overnight arrest sweep in the West Bank city of Nablus, a stronghold for armed Palestinian factions.

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