Arrests Cloud Middle Eastern Summit

JERUSALEM -- Israel arrested 52 Islamic Jihad activists Tuesday in its first big crackdown against militants since a February cease-fire, abandoning a policy of restraint toward the militant group and clouding an already troubled meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Israel has been scornful of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' strategy for reining in extremists, which favors persuasion over confrontation. At their meeting on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expected to demand that Abbas take aggressive action against militants.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the military changed tack because the Palestinian Authority had been ineffectual. "When we found out that Islamic Jihad was carrying out acts of terror and wasn't adhering to the truce ... then there was no choice but to take resolute action," Mofaz said.

The spike in violence has compromised recent efforts to coordinate Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip with the Palestinians and stoked fears that a renewed chance for peacemaking might be lost. Sharon has said a smooth withdrawal could lead to a resumption of peace talks. After Palestinian militants declared an informal cease-fire early this year, Israel agreed to go after only those on the brink of carrying out attacks.

But with Islamic Jihad stepping up its activities this week and killing two Israelis, the military decided it would no longer limit its operations to "ticking bombs," but would go after anyone affiliated with the group, said Lieutenant Colonel Erez Winner, a senior Israeli commander in the West Bank.

"We operated against this group in a restrained manner," Winner said.

But "Islamic Jihad has taken itself absolutely out of the [cease-fire] agreement with its attacks, and so from our view, we are operating fully against them, as we did before," he said. "Anyone we know who is affiliated with this organization is a legitimate target." He said he did not expect more mass arrests.

Khadr Adnan, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in the West Bank, said if the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, which brokered the cease-fire declaration, did not take action to ensure Israel's commitment to the truce, "then we will consider ourselves to be outside [delcaration], and will call upon all Palestinian factions to do the same."

Despite the crackdown, violence continued. Palestinian militants launched a homemade rocket at an Israeli settlement in Gaza on Tuesday morning and opened fire three times at soldiers guarding Gaza settlements, the army said. Overnight, seven mortar shells were fired at Gaza settlements.

Islamic Jihad is the smaller of the two main militant groups in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The larger militant group, Hamas, has been relatively quiet as it tries to cement a political following in advance of upcoming Palestinian legislative elections.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian attacks and Israeli arrests endangered the cease-fire and "have really cast a dark cloud" over the Sharon-Abbas meeting.

Expectations for the meeting were low because of Israel's insistence that the Palestinians do more to curb militant attacks and because of Palestinian allegations that Israel has been stonewalling on pullout coordination, West Bank handovers and prisoner releases.