Cabinet Seeks to Promote West Bank Truce; Arrests Must Be Approved by Senior Officers

The Israel Defense Forces will no longer arrest Palestinians in the West Bank without explicit approval from either the GOC Central Command or the commander of IDF forces in the territories, the diplomatic-security cabinet decided yesterday.

The decision is aimed at reducing tensions in the West Bank that could disrupt the fragile cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

However, the IDF opposes expanding the cease-fire to the West Bank, saying that terrorist organizations have no intention of stopping attempts to launch attacks from there, and without the army actively thwarting these attempts, suicide bombings inside Israel are liable to resume.

The cabinet also forbade the IDF to open fire on Qassam rocket launchers in Gaza, even though rockets continue to be fired at Israel from the Strip in violation of the cease-fire. Yesterday, one rocket landed in the western Negev, though no one was hurt.

In addition, army sources said, the cabinet decided that targeted killings of terrorists will now require approval from both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Formerly, the approval of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was sufficient.

Prior to yesterday's cabinet decision, brigade commanders could decide on arrests in the West Bank on their own, unless the operation was considered particularly complex.

"The orders to the troops are to prevent unnecessary friction, as much as possible," explained an army source. "But when there is information about a cell that is planning to commit an attack, there is no doubt: A force will be sent to make an arrest. If we don't do this, the results will be felt immediately in the form of attacks in the center of the country."

The new rules of engagement were not well received by field officers on the Gaza border, who worried that terrorist organizations will exploit the opportunity to carry out attacks, and that the IDF will be prohibited from trying to prevent them. However, a senior officer stressed, "our professional opinion is irrelevant once an order [from the cabinet] has been received."

In adopting the new, more stringent rules of engagement in Gaza, the cabinet sided with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni against Peretz, who advocated the army's view that preventive strikes on Qassam launchers should be permitted. Peretz argued that the government should not be gambling with Israeli lives in order to preserve a cease-fire that is still being only partially observed.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet security service chief, was the only cabinet member who backed Peretz on this issue.

In the West Bank yesterday, IDF troops killed a 15-year-old Palestinian in the Askar refugee camp in Nablus. The soldiers said that they opened fire because a group of boys that was throwing rocks at them from a rooftop had endangered their lives. But Mahmoud Al-Jabji's family claims that he was inside the house when the bullet hit him.

The IDF also announced yesterday that on Saturday, it arrested two Palestinians at a checkpoint west of Jenin, who were suspected of planning a suicide bombing inside Israel.

Meanwhile, Hamas announced yesterday that it would boycott discussions among the Palestinian factions on expanding the cease-fire to the West Bank, to protest Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' decision to halt talks on establishing a Palestinian unity government. Abbas stopped the discussions because he said that they had reached a dead end. But yesterday, he said that he still hoped agreement on a unity government could be reached.

Also yesterday, PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who had been in Qatar and arrived in Syria, announced that the Qatari government had agreed to pay the salaries of all teachers employed by the PA Education Ministry, at a cost of $22.5 million a month.