JERUSALEM -- Opening the door to a tough new policy, Israel's attorney general determined Friday that relatives of West Bank suicide bombers can be expelled to the Gaza Strip if they encouraged or were linked to terror attacks, officials said.
The decision on deportation came after Israeli forces detained 21 relatives of two Palestinians suspected in back-to-back attacks this week, in which 10 Israelis and two foreign workers were killed -- the first deadly attacks on Israeli civilians in nearly a month.
Palestinian officials and human rights groups denounced the decision and turned to the Israeli Supreme Court to block any expulsions. The militant group Hamas vowed "unique" suicide attacks against Israel if the expulsions were carried out.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richad Boucher said the United States expected Israel to act only based on information about a person's culpability, not personal or family relationships.
The debate came amid reports of a possible Palestinian cease-fire to set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank. The Jordanian and Saudi foreign ministers both spoke of the cease-fire discussions in comments to reporters after meeting with President Bush in Washington.
Palestinians and Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the first stage of the plan would be a halt to Palestinian suicide bombing attacks inside Israel.
This would be followed by an Israeli army withdrawal from Palestinian territory in the Gaza Strip and from territory in and around one West Bank city for starters.
Occupying seven towns
Israel has been occupying seven major West Bank towns for the past month to prevent militant operations. But Israelis are questioning whether the incursion is effective after this week's attacks -- a West Bank bus ambush Tuesday that killed nine Israelis, and a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv the next day that killed an Israeli and two foreign workers.
Israel sees expulsions as a way to undermine what it sees as one of the incentives for would-be suicide bombers: benefits to their families. Hamas provides schooling and other benefits to its bombers' relatives, and the Iraqi government sends up to $25,000 to the families.
The Palestinian Authority also provides a form of social security to families of Palestinians arrested or killed by Israeli forces. Charities funded by other Arab states contribute.