Senior Palestinians slammed Israel's threat to assassinate Yasser Arafat as a "serious mistake," while Washington also warned against any action to "remove" the veteran leader.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom however played down his government's recent resolution against the Palestinian leader, insisting that action would not be taken immediately.
"We are not taking these threats lightly," Mohammad Dahlan, security minister in outgoing Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas' government, told AFP.
Israel was waiting for the right moment to assassinate Arafat, Dahlan added, calling such a move a "serious error".
"Israel is not stupid and knows that carrying out an attack against President Arafat or his expulsion would open the door to a bloody conflict and destroy any chance of relaunching the peace process," he said.
A Palestinian boy makes the V-sign for victory and holds a poster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as people gathered in the grounds of Arafat's partially destroyed compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Killing Arafat is an option, a senior Israeli minister said Sunday. (AFP/Jean-Philippe Ksiazek)
Foreign minister Nabil Shaath also denounced the Israeli threats as "criminal, insolent and stupid".
"Israel would have to face its responsibilities in front of the world as a state of gangsters and not as a real constitutional state," Shaath told AFP here.
Ehud Olmert, who is industry minister and number two in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, said that the assassination of Arafat would be considered to put a halt to the killing of innocent civilians.
"From a fundamental, moral point of view, I want to put this question to every man of conscience," Olmert told CNN late Sunday.
"How many more civilians must be killed ... before someone will come and say, 'Hey, let's stop the man who has been responsible for all of this?'
"It's well-known that he is the head of a terrorist gang."
But Shalom told reporters Monday that Olmert's comments were not the government's policy and stressed that "the cabinet decision is not for immediate action."
Olmert had previously confirmed that Arafat's "liquidation" was an option although he indicated that the Israelis were looking to increase his isolation at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he has been confined for the last 20 months.
The Israeli security cabinet's decision last week to approve in principle Arafat's "removal" has sparked outrage among Palestinians as well as criticism from Washington.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "The United States does not support either the elimination of him or the exile of Mr. Arafat.
"I think the consequences would not be good ones. I think you can anticipate that there were would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world, and in many of other parts of the world," Powell told Fox News.
Israel's decision to move against Arafat followed two deadly suicide attacks in Jerusalem and near Tel Aviv last week which lengthened the shadow hanging over attempts to end the conflict with the Palestinians.
Sharon, meanwhile, was hosting a cabinet meeting Monday to seek backing for 2.2 billion dollars in cuts for the 2004 austerity budget, including a large drop in defense spending, army radio reported.
Sharon had vetoed moves by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanayahu to slash the defense budget by 1.3 billion dollars, the radio reported, after severe opposition from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Instead, defense spending is now likely to be reduced by about 800 million dollars.
Meanwhile, two Palestinian children were arrested by the Israeli army after being used as human guinea pigs to break through a security fence bordering the Gaza Strip, military sources said.
The youngsters, aged eight and 10, said they had been crossed into Israeli territory on Sunday evening after being threatened with violence.
According to the army, the boys had been sent to test the security capacity of the fence around the Kissufim area. The pair were picked up after they triggered a warning.
Four wanted Palestinian militants, including three Hamas members, were also arrested overnight in the West Bank, Israeli military sources said.
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