The hardline tourism minister was shot dead in a Jerusalem hotel by three members of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The group said the operation was in retaliation for the 27 August assassination of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa in an Israeli rocket attack on his Ramallah office.

Arafat immediately condemned the killing of Zeevi, and pledged to arrest the perpetrators. Israeli cabinet secretary Gideon Saar said Israel would ‘act against the Palestinian Authority in the way currently accepted by the international community to act against a leadership that supports terror’ if Arafat failed to turn over the killers. The statement was a clear reference to the US-led campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The renewed pressure on Arafat came after the Palestinian leader had chalked up a series of diplomatic gains in the wake of the 11 September suicide air attacks on the US. On 15 October, Arafat was received by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair who reiterated his government’s explicit support for the creation of a Palestinian state. Washington has also released details of a new policy approach based on the need for the Palestinians to have their own state.

Three days before his assassination, Zeevi had tendered his resignation to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in protest at the pull-out of Israeli forces from areas of Hebron occupied in early October after Palestinians shot at Jewish settlers.

The threatened withdrawal of Zeevi’s seven-member National Union/Israel Beiteinu coalition from Sharon’s ruling coalition had offered a chance to the Labour Party of Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres to strengthen its position. However, prospects of a revival of peace negotiations, as advocated by Peres, have dimmed following the Zeevi assassination.

Egypt has accused Sharon of exploiting the assassination to revert to his preferred stance of rejecting negotiation.