- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli intelligence claims it has detailed evidence proving that Yasser Arafat’s West Bank compound is a refuge for some of the most-wanted Palestinian terror suspects and a nerve center for “martyr” attacks.

According to senior officials, a growing band of men wanted on suspicion of planning suicide bombings and killing settlers is being sheltered in the compound, known as the Mukata.

The evidence that Mr. Arafat, 74, is at the apex of a terrorist infrastructure is being used by some Israeli officials to argue that he should be killed in an air strike, as Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of the Hamas terror group, was assassinated last week.

With Sheik Yassin removed, the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, and military intelligence units in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are shifting their cross hairs to Mr. Arafat, who they insist inspires and directs terrorism.

An IDF document marked “confidential” and obtained by the London Sunday Telegraph lists 17 wanted members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Tanzim militia, both part of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement, who are said to be sheltering in the Mukata. Al Aqsa has been behind several recent suicide attacks, including the past two bus bombings in Jerusalem that killed 19 persons and wounded more than 160.

At the top of the list is Kamel Ghanem, 27, Ramallah commander of the Al Aqsa group and purported coordinator of terror cells. He is accused of planning several suicide bombings and of having taken part in gun attacks.

No. 2 is Khaled Shawish, a senior Tanzim fugitive with suspected links to Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Shawish is wheelchair-bound, like Sheik Yassin, after a failed Israeli assassination attempt.

Significantly, a senior defense official noted, “Number two goes for medical treatment in Ramallah,” suggesting that Shawish was also vulnerable to Israel’s Apache attack helicopters because of his predictable movements.

Sadah Abdullah, a nurse who worked for the Palestinian Red Crescent, confessed last month to interrogators that Shawish had given her messages for Hezbollah when she visited the Mukata.

“He sits in the Mukata in a safe haven and he recruited the nurse who treated him,” one of Israel’s most senior security officials revealed. “She was arrested when she was on her way to lead a suicide bomber into Jerusalem.”

Another on the wanted list is Mohammed Damra, known as Abu Awad, the commander of Force 17, Mr. Arafat’s presidential guard, and a close confidant. “He is a commander of terrorist actions, even suicide actions,” the official said.

One senior Israeli intelligence official said Mr. Arafat did not give specific orders but directed and financed terrorism.

“Arafat does not tell them what to do every morning, but the terrorists understand his direction. They understand the message behind the words, the goal, and they act accordingly,” the official said.

Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian Authority chairman, has been confined to his West Bank compound for more than two years. His personal quarters have been rebuilt after shelling, but outside piles of rubble and cars crushed by tanks bear witness to Israeli operations.

Under pressure from the Israelis, Mr. Arafat forced Ghanem and Shawish to leave the Mukata in August, but they have since returned.

IDF commanders are exasperated that so far they have been refused permission to target the men.

“It would take me half an hour to kill or capture all of them, but there is an Israeli political directive not to do so,” one officer said.

Asked whether wanted men were being given refuge in the Mukata, the Palestinian Authority’s senior adviser, Jibril Rajoub, said: “I think that this is no more than an excuse from the Israelis. It’s not true.”

When the Sunday Telegraph put the accusation to Mr. Arafat, he waved away the inquiry, saying: “Later, later.”

Israeli officials said that Abu Firas, the governor of Ramallah and an influential Arafat adviser, had been handed the list of the wanted men but the Palestinian Authority had repeatedly failed to act on it. Mr. Firas denied the charge.

Shown the confidential document, he said that he had seen it only “on the Internet,” and that none of the men was in the Mukata.

“There is no wanted person there,” he said. “This is not the main issue. We are all wanted and we are all chased.”

Israel’s official policy is that Mr. Arafat should be “removed” from Ramallah at an opportune moment. Last week, Israeli Cabinet ministers were at pains to stress that no Palestinian leader involved in terrorism was immune from military action.

Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations was taken to a new level with the death of Sheik Yassin, a revered Palestinian figure. Mr. Arafat, also a symbol of Palestinian resistance, has appealed to the United Nations for protection.

Until now, Mr. Arafat has benefited from American opposition to his assassination. However, President Bush has declined to condemn the assassination of Sheik Yassin, and has rewarded Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a White House meeting in April.

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