Arafat under siege as Israelis storm his headquarters

ISOLATE THE `ENEMY':Palestinians said Yasser Arafat's life was in danger as Israel sent in troops and tanks to punish him for failing to stop militants


Sat, Mar 30, 2002 - Page 1

Israeli troops stormed Yasser Arafat's headquarters yesterday and shelled a three-story building where the Palestinian leader took cover in a windowless room -- Israel's opening shot in a large-scale military campaign in response to terror attacks that killed 29 Israelis in three days.

After declaring Arafat an "enemy" yesterday, Israeli forces seized the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Arafat has been confined for four months. Five Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in fighting in Ramallah.

A defiant Arafat huddled with his closest advisers in a groundfloor room. With a gun placed next to him on a table, he spoke by phone to world leaders and demanded immediate international intervention. His aides said the situation was very volatile and that Arafat's life was in danger.

Israel's "endgame is to kill Arafat," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Israeli officials insisted they were not trying to kill Arafat.

Arafat said he did not fear death and would not be cowed. "They want me under arrest or in exile or dead, but I am telling them, I prefer to be martyred," Arafat said in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel. "May God make us martyrs."

Israeli troops exchanged fire with Arafat's security guards, killing one and wounding 25. Two dozen tanks were deployed inside his sprawling compound, which is about the size of a city block. An army bulldozer punched a large hole in the stone wall of one building and soldiers streamed in.

Israeli snipers took positions on rooftops. Tanks shelled the Palestinian intelligence headquarters in the complex, severely damaging it, and troops stormed a lockup adjacent to Arafat's three-story building.

Yesterday afternoon, the building came under heavy Israeli shelling.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl blew herself up at the entrance of a Jerusalem supermarket, killing herself and two Israeli civilians, and wounding at least 19 shoppers. A militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility.

The violence appeared to doom the latest US truce mission, though US envoy Anthony Zinni was to remain in the region. Zinni spoke to Arafat by phone yesterday and met with Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat in the West Bank town of Jericho, Palestinian officials said.

The fighting came a day after an Arab summit in Beirut, Lebanon, approved a plan that calls on Arab nations to develop normal relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The latest escalation began with a suicide bombing by the Islamic militant group Hamas on Wednesday in a hotel in the resort of Netanya. The bomber blew himself up in the hotel's banquet hall, killing 22 diners and injuring more than 130 others.

The bombing was widely seen as a turning point in the fighting, with Sharon coming under growing pressure from an outraged public to respond harshly. The bombing was followed by three more attacks -- a shooting attack in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank on Thursday in which four Israelis were killed, an infiltration into a Gaza Strip settlement in which two Israelis were stabbed to death yesterday, and the suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the Jerusalem bombing, and identified the bomber as a woman from the West Bank town of Bethlehem. The militia said the attacker was 18, but the family said she was 16.

Also yesterday, Israeli police stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, firing stun grenades to disperse stone-throwing Muslim worshippers. The compound, the third holiest shrine of Islam, is revered by Jews as the site of their biblical Temple.

In response to the attacks, Israel's Cabinet met for an all-night session Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced yesterday that Israel now considered Arafat an enemy and would completely isolate him. The Cabinet also approved a large-scale military operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the callup of thousands of reserve soldiers, the largest mobilization in a decade.

Sharon did not explain what branding Arafat an enemy would mean in practical terms, but left open the possibility that the leader could be expelled from the Palestinian territories at a later time, as several Israeli Cabinet ministers have demanded.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that no Palestinian engaged in terror activity against Israel was immune from Israeli reprisals. Asked whether that also applied to Arafat, the defense minister said the Palestinian leader would not be harmed physically.

Ben-Eliezer said there was no intention to capture territory; rather, "to fight against the terrorist infrastructure."

Sharon, referring to Zinni's truce effort, said Israel was prepared to do everything it could for a cease-fire, "but all Israel got in return was terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism."

Arafat, in turn, accused Israel of scuttling peace efforts. "This brutal aggression is a response to the Arab summit in Beirut," Arafat told Abu Dhabi television. "This is the Israeli response to any peace attempt. Because they don't want peace, they don't want peace."

Tanks also surrounded Arafat's compound, and fired shells into the walls. Troops seized two buildings in the complex. "The Israeli forces are surrounding my office with tanks," Arafat said. "They are shelling the headquarters and we have some people who are injured, and can't move them to the hospitals."

Arafat said Thursday night he was ready for an immediate, unconditional truce, but he stopped short of formally declaring a ceasefire.