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THE MIDDLE EAST

Roundups in Ramallah Target Police

April 02, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Stripped to their underwear, the Palestinian policemen emerged from the Darraghmeh apartment building, some still bleeding from gunshot wounds. Under heavy guard, they surrendered to Israeli forces before being led away blindfolded.

One policeman, the first out the door, was shot dead, apparently because he was still holding his gun as he went to surrender. A second bled to death in the overnight raid, witnesses said Monday.

Israeli forces who have seized control of the West Bank city of Ramallah have, in addition to cornering Yasser Arafat, rounded up hundreds of men; raided houses, businesses and hospitals; and pounded targets with artillery.

Many of those captured or killed in Ramallah have been police, the very security agents who would have to enforce a cease-fire and arrest gunmen if Arafat were inclined to give such orders. Israel maintains that many police have engaged in terrorism.

Early today, Israeli armor backed by gunships attacked the U.S.-built headquarters of Col. Jibril Rajoub, the Palestinian security chief in the West Bank. Flames and smoke were leaping from the sprawling complex.

Attacking the police appears to be another step in Israel's dismantling of the Palestinian Authority. During the last 18 months of conflict, Israel has repeatedly hit police posts and various symbols of Arafat's authority--from his headquarters to his personal helicopters--as a way to undermine and isolate him.

On Monday, Day 4 of the Israeli occupation of Ramallah, the army announced that it had arrested more than 700 people in the city since Friday, part of its hunt for suicide bombers and other militants who attack Israelis. If recent history is any indication, the vast majority of those arrested will be released; army officers acknowledge that most of the really bad guys usually get away.

The army's tactics have succeeded in terrifying civilians in Ramallah and in wreaking great destruction on property in this once-bustling city. But a growing chorus of critics is arguing that the tactics will not eliminate terrorism. It's an important debate, especially since the Ramallah operation is a prototype for the Israeli incursions that are currently sweeping the West Bank and are seen by Palestinians as the renewal of a long-term occupation.

Rajoub, the security chief, telephoned CNN to angrily denounce the attack on his headquarters and warn that such moves will not bring peace. Rajoub was not in the compound, but Israel believes that he was hiding dozens of militants there, including Arafat's top lieutenant, Marwan Barghouti. A senior Israeli security source earlier said Israel would begin going after such key Arafat aides.

Raids Show Risks of Close Combat

The new raids, effective or not, also illustrate the hazards of close-quarter combat in a crowded urban zone.

A platoon of Israeli soldiers descended on the Darraghmeh building Sunday after dark, residents said. They swept inside and clambered to a fourth-floor apartment sheltering 22 Palestinian policemen. The circumstances were not clear, but something apparently spooked the soldiers--possibly an electrical box on the wall with wires hanging out that vaguely resembled a bomb--and they opened fire on the police inside the apartment.

Judging from the pattern of bullet holes, the soldiers then retreated to a floor below and continued to shoot toward the policemen. Spent cartridges littered the entire stairwell.

After about a 20-minute firefight, the Israelis broadcast calls on loudspeakers, ordering the Palestinians to surrender or the entire building would be blown up, said Randa Zir, a 25-year-old who lives with her family on the second floor. Injured and outgunned, the Palestinians were ready to surrender, Zir said.

But the first police officer to emerge was "stupid or inexperienced," she said. He held his hands up, but in them he had a gun. Soldiers shouted in Hebrew for him to drop his weapon, but he didn't and they shot him dead, residents said. An army statement later said they believed the middle-aged man to be a suicide bomber.

After the shooting, the soldiers changed tack and ordered all residents in the building to emerge one by one. Males were directed to strip to their underwear, to expose any bombs or weapons, and to hold up their identification papers. The policemen went first, helping at least four comrades wounded in the earlier firefight.

Then came the civilian men, about 10 of them. Like the police, they were blindfolded and taken to a room in a neighboring building.

The women came next, stepping gingerly over the body at the doorway. They did not have to strip, but each woman had to lift her shirt to show the soldier she was not armed. Zir said the soldiers even searched the blankets of her 2-month-old niece.

"One had a black mask and a really huge dog--I thought at first it was a wolf," Zir said Monday in her living room. "They put us in a room full of other women and told us to be quiet."

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