The attacks, claimed by the Hamas group, followed the assassination by Israel of one of the group’s leaders nine days earlier. However, the US joined Israel in focusing the blame squarely on Arafat for failing to take adequate measures to prevent Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement from launching attacks on Israeli civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in Washington at the time of the attacks. He cut short his visit and returned to Israel to supervise retaliatory military operations against the PA. These attacks included the destruction of Arafat’s helicopters in Gaza, tearing up the runway at Gaza airport, and missile attacks on police posts close to Arafat’s offices in Ramallah.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has in the past criticised Israeli operations as disproportionate, described the latest military strikes as justified. ‘Israel, at this moment, is recovering from a terrible blow inflicted on her last Saturday night by acts of terror,’ he said on 3 December.

Powell said he had been assured by Israel that Arafat himself was not a target of the attacks. However, US officials said that Arafat was in danger of losing all credibility as a leader of his people. The US Senate has drafted a resolution calling on Bush to suspend relations with Arafat if he fails to ‘destroy the infrastructure of Palestinian terrorist groups’.

Arafat has said he needs more time to complete his security measures. Israel responded on 5 December by agreeing to give Arafat a breathing space during which restrictions on the movement of his security forces would be lifted so as to allow them to round up 30 Hamas and Islamic Jihad members named by Israel as being involved in suicide bomb attacks.

Arafat’s measures against the Islamist groups have provoked popular protests. There were violent demonstrations in Gaza on 6 December after the PA placed Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin under house arrest.

Tensions have also risen within the Israeli national unity government. Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres has made clear his dismay with the decision to destroy Arafat’s helicopters, and with the earlier appointment of the hardline Meir Dagan to lead any negotiations with the Palestinians. However, Peres stressed on 5 December that he has no intention of pulling the Labour Party out of the Sharon-led government. A number of senior Labour party figures, including Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, have argued that the time has come for the party to quit the coalition, as the government’s policy is being dictated by the far right.

Egypt has launched a bid to try to arrange a truce between the Israelis and Palestinians, so as to allow peace negotiations to resume. Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmed Maher was scheduled to visit Israel on 6 December for talks with Israeli officials. Maher returned to Cairo the previous day after a 10-day visit to Washington.