- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Israeli troops and tanks swarmed into Yasser Arafat's headquarters yesterday, punching holes in walls and fighting room to room as the Palestinian leader huddled in a windowless room and made frantic calls asking Arab leaders for help.
Five Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed as Israeli forces took over the West Bank city of Ramallah and Mr. Arafat's sprawling compound, where 25 Palestinians were wounded and 60 detained.
In the latest Palestinian suicide attack, an 18-year-old woman blew herself up at the entrance of a Jerusalem supermarket, killing herself and two Israelis. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia close to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement, said it had sent the bomber.
The Ramallah operation was described by Israeli officials as the first stage of a much larger assault aimed at destroying the "terrorist infrastructure" that has inflicted hundreds of Israeli deaths over 18 months of relentless violence. More than a thousand Palestinians have died in the fighting.
Israel said it had no plans to kill Mr. Arafat but wanted to isolate him.
Throughout the day, Israeli tanks shelled buildings in the compound, and soldiers entered buildings and traded fire with Palestinians. By nightfall, the Palestinian Authority chairman was trapped in the middle floor of his three-story office building, which was plunged into darkness when soldiers cut off electricity and destroyed a generator.
Phone links were blocked, leaving him with only a cell phone to connect him with the outside world.
A submachine gun placed on the table in front of him, Mr. Arafat was defiant. "They want me under arrest or in exile or dead, but I am telling them, I prefer to be martyred," he said in a telephone interview with the Arab satellite television channel Al Jazeera. "May God make us martyrs."
In an interview with CNN, Mr. Arafat assailed Israel, saying the Palestinian people were "fighting this tyranny." He said Palestinians will continue "in the face of … this terrorist occupation."
[In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on Palestinians to stop "terrorist attacks" against Israelis, and told Israel not to destroy the Palestinian Authority, Reuters news agency reported.
[Mr. Annan issued a statement shortly before Security Council members went into an emergency session at the request of Arab nations.
[The council planned a public debate later last night, but it was thought unlikely that the 15-nation body would agree on a resolution or statement.]
The Israeli assault sparked protests by Palestinian refugees in camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
Despite the day's events, U.S. truce envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni continued his mission, meeting with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat yesterday and speaking to Mr. Arafat by phone.
Mr. Erekat said Israel's "endgame is to kill Arafat," an accusation dissmissed as "nonsense" by Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The latest escalation began Wednesday in an Israeli hotel banquet hall, when a Palestinian suicide bomber exploded himself, killing 22 diners during a Passover Seder, the ritual meal at the start of the holiest Jewish holiday.
Yesterday morning, after an all-night session, the Israeli Cabinet declared Mr. Arafat an "enemy of the state" and said the Palestinian leader would be isolated. Israel began calling up thousands of reserve soldiers, and the mobilization was expected to reach 20,000 troops, the largest in a decade.
Hours later, Israeli troops and two dozen tanks swarmed into Mr. Arafat's walled compound an area the size of a city block with a jumble of several interconnected buildings, surrounded by a high wall with three gates.
Israeli troops know every inch of Mr. Arafat's three-story office building it was the Israeli military headquarters in Ramallah until Israel withdrew from the city in 1995. The bottom floor has guard rooms, the middle floor houses Mr. Arafat's office, dining room and sleeping quarters, and the top has more offices.
In yesterday's assault, heavy tank and gunfire hit the building's first and third floors, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said. It was the first time Israel directly targeted the building. Israeli snipers took positions on rooftops, and tanks shelled the intelligence headquarters in the complex.
Israeli troops broke into structures adjacent to Mr. Arafat's offices and punched holes in walls, moving room to room toward his building. At one point, they broke through a wall into the office building itself and traded fire with Palestinians through the hole, the Palestinians said.
But the Israeli military said its soldiers did not enter the building. Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, commander of Israeli troops in the West Bank, said the troops were in control of the whole compound except Mr. Arafat's offices. Large caches of weapons were found, and about 60 people were detained. Mr. Abed Rabbo told CNN that those detained were unarmed, mostly secretaries and drivers.
For most of the day, Mr. Arafat was in a windowless room, keeping up with events on television, giving phone interviews to satellite TV news channels and speaking by phone to more than a dozen world leaders. Mr. Arafat pleaded for immediate international intervention but was not given real promises, one of his aides said.
Thursday evening, with Israeli retaliation for the Passover bombing already imminent, Mr. Arafat said he was ready to immediately implement the U.S. truce plan without conditions. But he stopped short of formally declaring a cease-fire.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide