The Israeli government issued a stern warning today in the wake of the Rome and Vienna airport attacks that it will retaliate harshly against Palestinian terrorism "in every place and at any time it sees fit."
Although the Palestine Liberation Organization issued denials that it was responsible for the attacks, Israeli leaders laid the blame squarely on the PLO and hinted broadly that armed retribution will follow soon.
As they did after the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October, Israeli leaders declared that today's terror attacks had ruled the PLO out of any possible role in Middle East peace negotiations.
The government urged "all countries which give shelter and support to the PLO to immediately expel all representatives of that organization."
The PLO, in a statement from its headquarters in Tunis, said: "None of the services of the PLO were involved in these attacks, which took place on the territory of two friendly countries."
Prime Minister Shimon Peres said tonight, "The attacks only emphasize the need facing the countries of the world to organize against all forms of terrorism and prevent the continuation of its rampage.
"Terror is blind, and anyone who attempts to justify any form of terror must know that he will also be hit by terror. The government of Israel will protect its citizens at home and abroad, and will fight in all ways against terrorists," Peres added.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin specifically singled out PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat for responsibility in the airport attacks, saying that there was a "tragic irony" in the gunmen's selection of Italy and Austria as targets. The Israeli government long has been critical of the governments of Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and former chancellor Bruno Kreisky of Austria for being sympathetic to the PLO and for giving official recognition to its leader.
"It is tragic because the target was Israeli, or anyone connected with Israel, and ironic because they the terrorists chose the countries of Craxi and Kreisky to execute these attacks," Rabin told a meeting of economists in Tel Aviv.
The defense minister condemned those who he said "are trying to depict Arafat and his organization as those who want peace," and he said the airport attacks should "remind all of us who is Arafat and what are the real aims of this murderous terrorist organization."
Reacting to unconfirmed reports that an anti-Arafat splinter group headed by Sabri Banna, also known as Abu Nidal, had claimed responsibility for the airport attacks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Avi Pazner said he would make no distinction between the Abu Nidal group and Arafat's mainstream Fatah organization.
"Okay, Abu Nidal is anti-Fatah, but he is also PLO," Pazner said. "We have to take that claim with a grain of salt. There is no doubt whatsoever that parts of the PLO are connected to these attacks. I don't exonerate Arafat, because parts of his organization were responsible."
Israeli officials did not explicitly threaten military strikes against Palestinian guerrilla bases, but the suggestion of such retaliatory raids was implicit in an official statement by Pazner that said, "Israel will continue its struggle against terrorism in every place and at any time it sees fit."
Following the Sept. 25 murder of three Israelis aboard a yacht in a Cyprus marina, the Israeli government issued a similarly worded statement. Six days later, Israeli Air Force jets bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunisia in the most distant air strike ever carried out by the Israelis against a Palestinian guerrilla base.
Since the Tunis air strike, the PLO has moved most of its headquarters operations to Baghdad, Iraq, although it maintains a sizable presence in Amman, Jordan.
Rabin, in the past, has strongly condemned the presence of PLO offices in Amman, from which, he has said, terrorist operations against Israeli targets here and abroad are directed. Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister, has repeatedly urged that air strikes be conducted against PLO headquarters in Jordan, but Peres and most members of his Cabinet have rejected such suggestions.
On June 7, 1981, Israeli warplanes flew more than 600 miles inside Arab territory to destroy Iraq's newly constructed nuclear reactor.
Another possible target of Israeli military retaliation would be Palestinian guerrilla bases in Lebanon's central Bekaa Valley, operated by several PLO splinter groups that in recent weeks have claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks inside Israel.
However, because of a recent buildup of Syrian surface-to-air missiles in the Bekaa Valley and along the Syrian-Lebanese border, Israeli retaliatory air strikes in Lebanon could lead to a wider Syrian-Israeli conflict, which Peres has said he wants to avoid. Israeli Army command sources have said that if the Syrians fire at any Israeli warplanes overflying Lebanon, it probably would lead to air strikes against the missile batteries.
Israeli officials said that despite Arafat's much-publicized declaration in Cairo last month that the PLO would forgo armed attacks against civilians outside Israeli-occupied territories, guerrilla groups directly linked to Arafat's mainstream PLO wing, Fatah, have engaged in terrorism abroad.
They said that the PLO chairman's Amman-based elite bodyguard unit, Force 17, was responsible for the murder of two Israeli merchant seamen in Barcelona, Spain, in October, as well as the Sept. 25 Cyprus killings.
The Israeli officials also said that Fatah units' claims of responsibility for four recent bomb attacks against civilians inside Israel violate Arafat's Cairo declaration. PLO officials, however, have said that when Arafat spoke of continuing attacks in occupied territories he was referring to Israel as well as land it took in the 1967 war.
"We don't believe one word that Arafat says," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "They try to create the image that all attacks are against military targets and that they are seeking peace. The fact that Fatah has not claimed responsibility for the attacks against the airports in Rome and Vienna doesn't mean that they are not responsible."
Transportation Minister Haim Corfu said tonight that Israel will call for an emergency meeting of international airlines to discuss antiterrorism measures. The president of Israel's El Al airline, Rafi Har-Lev, said that El Al has made appeals to all countries it serves to improve security at check-in counters at their airports.