The cabinet was last night preparing an ultimatum to the Palestinian Authority that will demand immediate action against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the extradition of those responsible for assassinating Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
Official sources said Israel will threaten to eliminate the PFLP if its secretary general Ahmed Sa'adat and the assassins are not arrested and handed over. The PFLP immediately claimed responsibility, saying the assassination was to avenge Israel's killing of their leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, 40 days ago.
Shin Bet and police sources said there were "good leads" in the investigation of Ze'evi's murder outside Room 816 in East Jerusalem's Hyatt Hotel where the minister routinely stayed while in the capital.
Ze'evi had stayed overnight and had breakfast with his wife Yael on the fourth floor of the hotel early yesterday morning. He returned to the room shortly before 7 A.M. where, say police and Shin Bet sources, at least one gunman shot him twice in the head and once in the neck with a silencer-equipped pistol. Yael found the body minutes later and her screams brought tourist David Hawkins out of his room next to the Ze'evi's.
He summoned a woman from his tour group who knew CPR, and she tried to keep the minister alive. Within minutes, Magen David Adom and police began arriving on the scene. The MDA ambulance took him to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital rather than Mt. Scopus because Ein Kerem is better equipped to handle such trauma, the MDA said later.
On arrival, his pulse had stopped and emergency room doctors tried open chest resuscitation, but to no avail. After two-and-a half hours, they pronounced him dead. (More stories on pages 2 and 3.)
At the hotel, Avi Dichter, chief of the Shin Bet, and top police officers, including Inspector General Shlomo Aharonishki and Jerusalem Police Chief Mickey Levy, took over the investigation. Dichter immediately accepted responsibility for the Shin Bet's failure to protect the minister. By yesterday afternoon he had arranged with Elyakim Rubinstein for the Shin Bet to conduct an internal investigation that would not legally interfere with any public inquiry.
As international and diplomatic pressure last night mounted on PA Chairman Yasser Arafat to take swift and effective action, the IDF was awaiting orders to launch what army sources said would be the most "massive" and "long-lasting" operation against Palestinian controlled territories since the current hostilities began a year ago. The apparent direction of the army's operation was Ramallah, where the West Bank headquarters of the PFLP is located.
Arafat did order the arrest of those responsible, ordering "all security services to look for this group that carried out the assassination and arrest them," said a Palestinian spokesman. PA officials said they regarded the PFLP's claim of responsibility for the assassination as a direct provocation and an attempt to disrupt the PA's efforts to return to the negotiating table with American and European backing.
But despite promising the arrests, by last night the PA had briefly held the PFLP's spokesman and then released him in time to appear on interviews with Arab television stations.
The inner security cabinet decided immediately after the assassination to freeze all contacts with the Palestinian Authority until it ends violence, and to "step up" the military response to terror attacks.
The inner cabinet did not, however, make any decision to assassinate Palestinian political leaders, such as Arafat. The government barred Arafat from using Dahaniya airport in the Gaza Strip. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres opposed the freezing of diplomatic ties, but agreed to increased IDF actions.
The military censor slapped a blanket ban on reporting details of the murder investigation. However, it was clear it would focus on the fact that 40 percent of the hotel staff are Palestinians.
The hotel is located in East Jerusalem, on the western slopes of Mt. Scopus, less than 10 minutes from Ramallah.
Investigators suspect the assassination cell comprised two or possibly three people, one of whom was a getaway driver.
It was immediately clear to investigators that Ze'evi's routine in the hotel made it relatively easy to track his habits. The hotel itself confirmed he and his family had been regular guests throughout the 14 years since it opened its doors - and the minister usually reserved the same room.
Police and Shin Bet investigators were at the hotel until late last night questioning all the employees and the tourists.