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Israelis, on edge, prepare for Sharon government

Israelis, on edge, prepare for Sharon government

With security forces swamping city streets to ensure people's immediate safety after another bombing, Israelis looked to Ariel Sharon to announce a new unity government to crush a Palestinian revolt against occupation.

On a day described as unusually quiet by the Israeli army, Palestinians, who should have been celebrating their Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, showed little inclination for joy.

Their economy crippled by Israeli closures, many suffer the grip of poverty. Others remember their kin - including young children - shot dead by Israeli troops during a five-month-old revolt of stone-throwing and gunfire against the Israelis.

The Jewish state says the closures are necessary for its security. Palestinians term it collective punishment.

Israelis were no less grim 48 hours after the attack in Netanya. Their anger at the bombing, and fear of more, was evident in the grim faces in shopping malls and on buses.

The military wing of the Palestinian group Hamas said last weekend it had more than 10 suicide bombers ready to sacrifice their lives and declared: "The world will see it on the first day the criminal Sharon takes power."

Israeli police on Monday detained for interrogation four people suspected of beating unconscious Bassem Saleh, a Palestinian worker set upon by a mob of Israelis who intended to lynch him after the Netanya bomb attack in which three Israelis and the suicide bomber died.

Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, appeared on the verge of forming his new cabinet, possibly as early as Wednesday, with the support of centre-left and conservative religious parties.

POLICE ON ALERT

Israeli national police chief Shlomo Aharonishky said his force was at maximum deployment in anticipation of more bombs.

"Just about every day we can expect an attack," he told reporters. "We are doing everything we can to reduce them."

However, Monday passed without major incidents reported. The army reported one shooting incident - Palestinian gunmen opened fire on three Israeli vehicles, one of them civilian, northwest of the West Bank city of Ramallah. No injuries resulted.

At least 342 Palestinians, 65 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed in the violence which erupted on September 28 amid failed Israeli-Palestinian peace moves.

Sharon, reviled by Palestinians for his hawkish views, has kept his remarks low-key in the days before he takes office, vowing to restore Israelis' security but also to work for peace. He has, however, been light on specifics.

The Palestinian response has been equally non-committal. "We wait and see, we wait and see," Palestinian President Yasser Arafat said last week when asked what he expected of Sharon.

Sharon, a 73-year-old former general, swept to a landslide victory in a February 6 prime ministerial election, ousting Ehud Barak, whose ministers have been taking leave of their staff this week.

Likud and the Labour Party of Shimon Peres, who will again become Israel's foreign minister, form the backbone of the coalition.

Sharon has also signed up the 17-seat ultra-Orthodox Shas party, ensuring a majority in the 120-seat Knesset for parliamentary approval of his governing coalition by a self-imposed Wednesday deadline.


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