GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Embarrassed by anti-U.S. protests, Yasser Arafat’s government took two unprecedented steps Tuesday: it closed Gaza City’s universities to silence Islamic militants and barred foreign reporters from the Gaza Strip to prevent coverage of the events.
The clampdown by the Palestinian Authority came a day after the deadliest internal Palestinian fighting in years, triggered by the militants’ show of support for Osama bin Laden. Two civilians were killed and dozens of police and protesters hurt in a clash with guns, stones, clubs and tear gas.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Nabil Shaath, cabinet minister for international cooperation, sought to distance the Palestinian cause from remarks by bin Laden that were broadcast Sunday, saying “Palestinians are not prepared to be responsible for whoever says that for security to be achieved for the Palestinian people, one must strike not only America but everyone living there.”
Referring to bin Laden, the Palestinian minister said, “If he thinks that he serves the Palestinian cause this way, then let him be responsible for his remarks. We will not be.”
Shaath, in Doha for an Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting that starts Wednesday, said Palestinians did not reject bin Laden’s linking of American security to Palestinian security.
Palestinians do reject their cause being used as justification for the killing of innocent people in the United States, however, he said.
“We do not want to be an excuse for anyone,” he said. “Our cause is just and we want to achieve it justly. Because the Israelis are the terrorists.”
The fighting pitted the Palestinian Authority against its longtime rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has been behind the rallies in support of bin Laden following the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
Arafat is trying to persuade Hamas to abide by a Sept. 26 truce with Israel, and could be using the clampdown to force it into compliance.
In recent weeks, Arafat had shied away from open confrontation with Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group, even though both had defied his orders to stop attacks on Israelis.
Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib said it was easier for Arafat to crack down on the militants over the pro-bin Laden rallies than over the cease-fire, which is largely unpopular.
Many Palestinians are dismayed by bin Laden’s attempt in a televised address this week to create a link between the Palestinian cause and his war against the United States.
“The statement that represents average Palestinians and their feelings about bin Laden’s speech is to respond: ‘Leave us alone,”’ Khatib said.
The response was vastly different a decade ago, just before the outbreak of the Gulf War, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein presented himself as the Palestinians’ savior, mainly in hopes of fracturing an international coalition against him.
At the time, Arafat embraced Saddam and Palestinians cheered Iraq’s promises to drive Israel out of the Middle East.
Palestinian officials later acknowledged it was a mistake. It led to the uprooting of tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gulf states, including Kuwait.
In the current crisis, Arafat has been careful to show support for the United States from the start, including Washington’s efforts to arrange an Israeli-Palestinian truce that would make it easier for Arab and Islamic states to support a military strike against terrorism suspects.
Israel has accused Arafat of doing too little to curb the militants, and violence has persisted, with 35 Palestinians and seven Israelis killed in fighting in the past two weeks.
But Israeli officials say there has been a shift in recent days, with the Palestinian Authority issuing public exhortations to honor the cease-fire.
Islamic militant leaders also said Monday they were summoned by the Palestinian Authority and warned there would be a tough response if they went on attacking Israelis.
Three suspected Islamic militants were arrested in the West Bank over the weekend — but Israel insists that the Palestinians arrest 108 suspects, and has handed over a list of names.
“We will have to see if this will be a sustained effort,” said Raanan Gissin, adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Tuesday marked the first time since the formation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 that Gaza City’s Islamic University and Al Azhar University were ordered closed.
The order was issued Monday by Palestinian police chief Ghazi Jabali, although on Tuesday, administrators of both universities ran newspaper ads suggesting it was they, not Arafat’s government, who decided on the closure. The schools are to stay closed through the week.
The Palestinian government also barred nearly a dozen foreign reporters, including two for The Associated Press, from the Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian official at the Israel-Gaza border cited security reasons. He would not give his name.
An AP photographer was barred from entering the Palestinian-controlled area around the West Bank city of Nablus, where about 1,500 students marched to protest against the shooting of the Gaza students and the U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan.
No Palestinian Authority official was willing to comment on the restrictions. Arafat’s security forces have repeatedly tried to prevent reporting on pro-bin Laden marches.
On Monday, journalists were chased away from the Hamas rally in Gaza City. In the West Bank town of Ramallah, a BBC radio correspondent collecting reaction to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan had her tape confiscated.