- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Israeli tanks encircled the battered compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday while troops arrested 27 Palestinian militant suspects and imposed a curfew during a sweep through the city.

Israel began its latest West Bank raid just hours before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sat down with President Bush at the White House. The president has given Israel strong backing throughout the fighting in the Middle East, and Mr. Bush said after the meeting that "Israel has a right to defend herself."

The Israeli raid was focused on seizing Palestinian suspects, and the soldiers surrounded Mr. Arafat's compound to prevent Palestinian gunmen from seeking refuge there, the army said. The military did not attack the compound, as it did Thursday, when it blew up three buildings in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing a day earlier.

Mr. Arafat was inside the compound yesterday and was not harmed, Palestinian officials said.

One Palestinian man was killed and two were wounded in exchanges of fire around the city, Palestinian doctors said. Two soldiers were wounded, the army said.

The army arrested 27 suspects in Ramallah, including "a suicide bomber who was ready to be sent," said Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. The Israeli troops were expected to remain in Ramallah for a "day or two," he added.

Israeli forces also arrested about 15 suspects in the West Bank town of Hebron, Palestinian witnesses said.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the Israeli raids were part of Mr. Sharon's attempt to undermine "the reform process."

The incursions came a day after Mr. Arafat announced a revamped Cabinet, which was to hold its first meeting yesterday at the compound. The session was canceled because of the Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers lining the streets around the complex, which covers a full city block.

Mr. Sharon "doesn't want a strong Palestinian Authority," Mr. Abed Rabbo said. "He wants to weaken the Palestinian Authority and to destroy the Palestinian infrastructure."

Israel also has demanded that Mr. Arafat act against Palestinian militants, and on Sunday, Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip arrested a senior leader of the militant group Islamic Jihad. The movement carried out a suicide attack Wednesday in northern Israel that killed 17 persons.

Sheik Abdullah Shami, the Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip, was arrested in Gaza City, group officials said. His arrest came a day after another senior leader in the group was detained. Mr. Arafat's leadership issued orders to arrest Islamic Jihad members after Wednesday's bombing.

In a follow-up to a massive military incursion in the West Bank that ended a month ago, Israeli troops have been staging almost daily in-and-out raids in Palestinian cities, towns and villages.

In Washington, Mr. Sharon reiterated his position that violence must end before peace negotiations can begin. He also stressed again that he doesn't believe there can be successful negotiations as long as Mr. Arafat remains in power.

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, a powerful explosion rocked the Jebaliya refugee camp early yesterday, destroying one building and damaging nearby homes, witnesses said.

An 18-year-old woman was killed and at least 25 people were injured, hospital officials said. Witnesses said the blast came from inside the building suggesting it may have been a Palestinian bomb that went off prematurely. Palestinian officials refused to comment.

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