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In response to Sunday's attacks which left three Israelis dead and five wounded, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz cut security contact with the Palestinians and ordered the IDF to both reestablish the roadblocks it had removed over the past year and re-impose controversial blockades on Palestinian cities, a security source said.
The IDF, which launched a massive manhunt for the gunmen, said the vehicle fled south to the Hebron area. Troops fanned out in the nearby villages and were poised to seal off the Palestinian-controlled areas of that city as well as Bethlehem.
The security source said Bethlehem and Hebron would be the first cities to face a blockade. The Defense Ministry, he said, would then reappraise the situation as needed. In several waves of arrests over the past month, the army has arrested as many as 700 terrorist suspects.
Israel will respond to West Bank terrorism the same way it responds to terrorism emanating from Gaza, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said, hinting that Sunday's attack would be met with the same type of sustained IDF activity that followed the salvo of Kassam rockets on Sderot in late September.
"The terrorists are trying to establish new rules," the official said. "They are trying to turn the focus on Judea and Samaria, and maintain a semblance of quiet in Gaza. But it won't work. Our policy is that there will be no geographical difference in our response to terror."
The official said that Israel would step up its arrests of terror suspects and renew targeted assassinations in the wake of Sunday's killings. These tactics were used in late September following the upsurge of violence from Gaza.
He also said that all intelligence information had indicated that the terrorist organizations would focus their efforts in Judea and Samaria following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. He said they were being assisted by outside forces such as Hizbullah, Iran and Syria.
The attack, the official continued, coming on the eve of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's trip this week to the US, was also meant as a signal not to "dare to consider" US President George Bush's expected call for him to dismantle the terrorist organizations.
The Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza blasted Sharon and Mofaz for opening Route 60 to Palestinian traffic. The presence of Palestinian traffic on Route 60, the council announced, "no doubt eased the murders."
Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein said that his district along with the Hebron area would begin operating a joint-security organization which would patrol the roads and the surrounding area.
Goldstein said "we already decided to establish this organization because of the 'non-security fence' which is to go up on our doorstep." Goldstein maintains that the presence of the security fence funnels terrorists towards the communities he leads.
Israeli security officials said the government planned to force Palestinian drivers onto separate roads in the West Bank next year after enough bridges and tunnels were built to give them freedom of movement. The attacks Sunday spurred Israel to enforce the plan immediately, officials said.
Palestinian emergency vehicles would still be allowed to use the roads, officials stated.
Hebron Hills Regional Council Head Tzviki Bar Hai, a leader of the anti-disengagement movement, alleged that "those who perished [today] paid with their lives for the collapse and the flight of the Sharon government."
The IDF responded that since Israel won the West Bank in 1967, the route has never been totally closed to Palestinian traffic. However, an army spokesman added that many of the access roads that link up to the contentious road were blocked during most of the past five years of conflict. It is virtually the only pathway between the southern Palestinian cities and those in the northern West Bank.
Nevertheless, District Commander Col. Nitzan Alon told Channel 2 that the IDF might consider blocking a number of access roads it had opened of late to ease restrictions on Palestinians.
An official in the Prime Minister's Office said the attack had put an end to talk about transferring additional West Bank cities to PA control. He said the terrorists who carried out the attack in Gush Etzion were believed to have come from Bethlehem, a city already under PA control.
The official said that Israel had hoped the PA would assert its control after Israel removed some roadblocks in the West Bank, but that this did not happen.
"If we ease restrictions and transfer control of other cities to the PA, the only beneficiaries would be the terrorist organizations," he said. "The only one who benefits from our gestures is Hamas. If you have chaos on the roads, there is no doubt we will go back to sustained operations and make life more difficult for them."
While the Aksa Martyrs Brigades claimed the attacks, one of its West Bank leaders, Nasser Juma, said "we are not responsible." There had been no directive from above, he told The Jerusalem Post, adding that "we still abide by the state of calm."
Indeed IDF sources suspect that the attack might actually have been the work of Hamas gunmen, and it is puzzling that the Fatah-linked group took responsibility.
The PA's difficulty in controlling the various terrorists groups prowling the West Bank is matched by the group's difficulties of late in controlling rogue operatives.
Arieh O'Sullivan and Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.
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