- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Israel planted its flag in Yasser Arafat's compound and shell bursts shook his offices last night, chipping away at the building in an ever-tightening siege designed to make the Palestinian leader surrender militants or go into exile.
Israeli soldiers with loudspeakers shouted to the estimated 200 people holed up in Mr. Arafat's offices to evacuate the building the last one still standing in the compound or else troops would blow up the building.
Thousands of Palestinians, many defying military curfews, took to the streets early today to protest the siege. Four demonstrators were killed by army fire, doctors said.
The protests, led by Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement, erupted in several towns across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Two persons were killed in Ramallah, one in the town of Nablus and one in Tulkarem, where gunmen traded fire with Israeli soldiers, Palestinian hospital officials said.
Israel has insisted that it does not aim to harm Mr. Arafat even as it has torn his command center down around him over the past three days, and it appeared unlikely troops would carry out the threat.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Arafat appealed to Palestinian militants to halt attacks on Israel but refused to hand over 20 wanted members of his entourage. He spent the day making telephone calls and sending faxes from a conference room in the battered building, surrounded by shattered cars and barbed wire.
An Israeli shell destroyed a staircase in the building overnight, trapping Mr. Arafat in four rooms on the second floor. In the morning, several more shells struck the building, including one that hit the floor above and dusted Mr. Arafat with dirt and debris.
At one point, Israeli troops raised a flag on a nearby building in the compound. When told of this, Mr. Arafat got up to take a look from a window, said Hani al-Hassan, a senior PLO official trapped inside.
Israel, preparing for a long standoff, said it would not withdraw from the compound before the wanted men surrender and left open the possibility that even then troops might not leave.
Israeli officials have told the Palestinians that the assault, which began after a suicide-bomb attack in Tel Aviv last week, seeks to isolate Mr. Arafat. But Israeli television cited defense officials saying the assault aims to make conditions so unbearable that the Palestinian leader will go into exile.
About 5,000 Palestinians, some firing submachine guns into the air or holding pictures of Mr. Arafat, marched in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, witnesses said. Protests also took place in Gaza City and in Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank.
In Ramallah, which is under full military control, hundreds of protesters shouted "Long live Arafat, long live Palestine" as they attempted to gather in the town center. They were dispersed when the army fired tear gas and live bullets, witnesses said.
The United States and the European Union have urged Israel to show restraint and have tried to defuse the crisis amid fears in Washington that a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians could complicate its campaign against Iraq.
France demanded that Israel halt the operation, saying it was unacceptable. The European Union's foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, said the raid would not help end terrorism and instead would undermine reform of the Palestinian Authority.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on President Bush to intervene immediately to stop the Israeli operation, the Middle East News Agency reported.
The U.N. Security Council is to meet tomorrow to discuss the siege. Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians are dismayed the debate will not be sooner. "Things cannot wait until Monday. We want an immediate decision from the council," he said.
Mr. Arafat has been under Israeli siege before including 34 days in the spring when he was confined in the same office building, as well as a 1982 siege in Beirut. But he never seemed weaker.
Many Palestinians have demanded that he share power, the United States seeks to sideline him and Israel's prime minister reportedly wants to expel him, held back only by warnings from Israeli security chiefs that such a step could backfire.
Five explosions rocked the compound yesterday, and aides said there was concern Mr. Arafat's building might collapse.
A picture taken by his personal photographer and released yesterday showed a grim-faced Mr. Arafat wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses, poring over papers at his desk, with several aides at his side. Beside him was a holstered pistol with belt, next to a desk calculator, a box of tissues and two bottles of mineral water.
Those trapped with him said Israeli troops demolished water pipes, the main kitchen and the pantry, but that there was enough water from rooftop tanks and stored food to last a few days.
In a statement published by the Palestinian news agency Wafa, Mr. Arafat again called on militants to halt attacks inside Israel.
He did not directly address the surrender of the wanted men, though his aides have said they would not be turned over. "We are ready for peace, not for capitulation," he said in his first comment since the Israeli raid began.


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