- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) Israeli helicopter gunships struck a security compound near Yasser Arafat's headquarters with missiles today, destroying two of his helicopters. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced a war on terrorism and blamed the Palestinian leader for anti-Israeli attacks.

Israeli F-16 warplanes struck in the West Bank city of Jenin, hitting police building, Palestinian officials said. The strikes were Israel's first retaliation for Palestinian suicide bombings in two Israeli cities and a gun attack that killed 26 people over the weekend.

In a televised address, Mr. Sharon did not say what further steps would be taken but announced a “war on terrorism'' and said Arafat had chosen “a strategy of terror.''

“Arafat is responsible for everything that is happening,'' Mr. Sharon said ahead of a Cabinet meeting that was expected to decide on the Israeli response.

The Palestinians, who launched their biggest sweep of arrests against Islamic militants in five years, said the Israeli strikes only undermined their capability to crack down.

The Palestinians are trying to bring calm, Cabinet minister Nabil Shaath said, “but the Israelis are not helping us, they are always destroying our efforts.''

The White House backed Israel's strikes. “The President's point of view is Israel is a sovereign power,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “Israel has a right to defend itself.''

Mr. Fleischer again called on Mr. Arafat to do everything in his power to combat terror.

The strike in Gaza city wounded 10 people, hospital officials said. Around 10 missiles pounded near Mr. Arafat's seaside headquarters and hit an underground fuel depot. The resulting fire sent a pall of thick smoke over the city. Two of Mr. Arafat's Russian-made helicopters were destroyed, one in the landing pad and another in a hangar.

Ambulances raced through the city, sirens blaring. Eight helicopters hovered over Gaza for about an hour, the noise of exploding missiles and the exchanges of submachine gunfire mixing with mosque calls to the traditional prayer that marks the end of the daylong fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The use of F-16s in the Jenin strikes were the first time the war planes have been used against Palestinians in months. The Israeli military spokesman said Israel attacked Arafat's offices and a police building in the city. Palestinian officials said there were no injuries because the buildings had been evacuated.

In Bethlehem, an explosion was heard in a house. Witnesses said it was apparently a case of a Palestinian militant preparing a bomb, which went off prematurely. One person was reported injured.

Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the Israeli military spokesman, said Mr. Arafat's helicopters were hit because “they were symbols of his mobility and freedom.''

Mr. Arafat, who travels between the West Bank and Gaza Strip by helicopter, was in the West Bank city of Ramallah at the time of the attack.

President Bush apparently did not seek to persuade Mr. Sharon to hold back when they met yesterday, before the Israeli leader rushed home. Mr. Arafat “must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice,'' Mr. Bush said yesterday.

Since the weekend attacks, Palestinian security officials said they had arrested 110 activists from Hamas which claimed responsibility for the attacks and Islamic Jihad. Among those arrested were two Hamas leaders in Gaza, Ismail Hanieh and Ismail Abu Shanab.

The spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was placed under house arrest and ordered not to speak to reporters, said the security officials.

Mr. Arafat declared a state of emergency in the Palestinian areas and gave orders to confiscate illegal weapons. Still, In the West Bank town of Nablus, about 1,000 activists marched to commemorate one of the Haifa bombers, despite a police ban.

The Palestinians have said in the past they cannot crack down heavily on militants while Israel conducts a policy of assassinating activists and of limiting movement in the West Bank. Shaath, however, said the weekend attacks had forced the Palestinian security forces to act.

But Israeli officials said they were skeptical of the seriousness of the sweep.

Aryeh Mekel, an Israeli government spokesman, said today's strikes were to send “a message to Arafat that the current situation can't continue and we expect him to act against the terror.''

Israeli hard-liners were pressing for a larger campaign against the Palestinian Authority, with some calling for Arafat to be expelled from the Palestinian territories, to which he returned in 1994.

Palestinian suicide bombers struck two cities within 12 hours over the weekend: Two bombers killed 10 people and injured 150 in a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem late Saturday, then another bomber in a public bus in Haifa killed 15 people Sunday. A shooting yesterday killed an Israeli in Gaza. Three suicide bombers were killed in the Jerusalem and Haifa attacks.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops barred Palestinians from entering and leaving their towns in an intensified blockade. At a checkpoint outside Jerusalem, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets to keep back about 150 Palestinians trying to get through the barrier, paramedics said.

A Palestinian was killed in a gun battle with Israeli troops near Tulkarem late yesterday, and a Palestinian farmer was shot dead early today as he walked toward his field. The Israeli military said troops shot a Palestinian man they suspected was trying to plant a bomb.

The past 14 months of fighting have killed more than 780 people on the Palestinian side and more than 230 on the Israeli side.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide