- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

From combined dispatches
RAMALLAH, West Bank Israeli soldiers rounded up hundreds of Palestinians for questioning, battled gunmen and imposed a curfew in the West Bank's main city yesterday. Yasser Arafat was penned up in his office, besieged by troops and trying to keep up his staff's morale, aides and witnesses said.
Mr. Arafat's connection to the outside world was by his cell phone. "I appeal to the international community to stop this aggression against our people, this military escalation, this killing," Mr. Arafat pleaded in English, in an interview with Reuters television.
Then, he added, in Arabic: "Together we will march until one of our children raises the Palestinian flag over the churches and mosques of Jerusalem." He accused Israel of "terrorist racist actions using all kinds of American weapons."
Israel's military offensive, initiated Friday to hunt down militants after a series of Palestinian attacks killed more than 30 Jews over three days, will last as long as it takes "to guarantee the safety of our homes," Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israeli television. Eleven Palestinians and two Israelis have been killed in two days of fighting in Ramallah.
In the latest attack, a suicide bombing yesterday evening in a crowded cafe in Tel Aviv's entertainment district wounded at least 32 persons, police and paramedics said. Four of the wounded are said to be in serious condition; one is critically injured.
A militia linked to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility.
Two Palestinians heading into Israel yesterday to conduct a suicide operation got into a gunbattle with Israeli police at the edge of the West Bank. An officer and the two Palestinians were killed.
Violence flared as well along Israel's northern border with Lebanon yesterday. Hezbollah guerrillas fired rockets and mortar shells at Israeli outposts in a disputed border area, and Israeli jets fired missiles at Lebanese border towns in retaliation.
Israel is expected to broaden its offensive in Palestinian-controlled areas in coming days, and the military was in action on two other fronts yesterday.
Tanks rumbled into the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem and next to Bethlehem, where Christians are observing Easter weekend. Many Christian residents in Beit Jalla complained that the incursion kept churches closed and forced a cancellation of festivities.
Tanks also entered the town of Beituniya, outside Ramallah, surrounding the military compound of Jibril Rajoub, West Bank's security chief. Mr. Rajoub said his men would resist an Israeli takeover.
An Israeli force thrust into a Palestinian-held portion of the divided West Bank city of Hebron and a tank fired rockets, witnesses said. The army said the incursion was in response to Palestinian gunfire, and added that the troops would not stay long.
Israeli soldiers also took control of the streets of Ramallah and seized the buildings in Mr. Arafat's sprawling government complex on Friday, but remained just outside his three-story office.
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Israeli forces had issued an ultimatum to Arafat supporters holed up inside the compound yesterday, threatening to storm the headquarters to arrest wanted individuals. An Israeli official denied making the ultimatum.
The Israeli army has cut off supply of water and electricity to the compound but said yesterday that it had allowed entry to Palestinian repairmen to restore electricity. Israel also said it had let Palestinian ambulances deliver supplies, including 1,000 pitas, 20 bottles of water, cheese, eggs, flashlights, candles and canned meat.
Mr. Arafat has been speaking by his cell phone with foreign leaders and reporters, though it was not clear how long he would be able to communicate the cell phone is dependent on a battery that needs recharging.
Some Israeli Cabinet members wanted to expel the Palestinian leader from the region but were persuaded against it by military leaders who warned that the move would be counterproductive, Mr. Ben-Eliezer told Israel television.
Meanwhile, bodies of five armed Palestinians, some in police uniform, were found yesterday in a six-story building close to the center of Ramallah. The Israeli army said they had been killed a day earlier in a firefight that had also left two soldiers wounded. At Mr. Arafat's compound, a security guard wounded in fighting with Israeli forces died of his injuries.
Israeli forces in Ramallah fired rockets at a high-rise building, forcing 15 Palestinian gunmen inside to surrender. Several of the injured gunmen were then put in an armored Israeli medical vehicle.
The Israeli military yesterday displayed a cache of weapons it says was seized from Mr. Arafat's compound, including machine guns, automatic rifles, mortars and more than 40 rocket-propelled grenades.


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