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The Middle East

Besieged Arafat Complex Gets a Good Scrubbing

Ramallah: Water and power are turned on and debris is cleared in time for Powell's meeting with the Palestinian leader.

April 15, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinians and foreign peace activists trapped inside Yasser Arafat's headquarters here got a bit of a reprieve over the weekend. After two weeks without water or phones, with limited electricity and serious food shortages, a visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Sunday brought them some relief--at least temporarily.

The Israelis who surround the compound turned on the water Saturday, and many of the Palestinian officials, members of security forces and 40 activists inside had their first wash since the siege began more than two weeks ago. Toilets were flushed. Lights went on. The stench reported by earlier delegations dissipated.

The adjacent parking lot and grounds had been littered with debris and cars crushed by lumbering Israeli Merkava tanks when troops took over this West Bank city, whose name means "God's mountain." But the area was cleaned up by the Israeli troops who ring the three-story white limestone building, according to U.S. officials who visited the compound in preparation for Powell's visit.

But the compound, with a gaping hole in one wall and bullet holes everywhere, is still a forlorn place. Conditions there are desperate, and the inhabitants are enraged about the Israeli siege.

Two Palestinians--a bodyguard for the Palestinian Authority president and an intelligence official--have been killed in gun battles around the compound in the last two weeks, and a dozen people have been injured. Two are in serious condition, and medical supplies have almost run out, according to Dr. Zeid abu Shawish, deputy health minister of the Palestinian Authority. He said he had performed major surgery with only a local anesthetic.

"Some days we eat one meal, some days two," said Ali Sawaftah, a Palestinian journalist inside the compound. "We sleep in shifts on the floor or a few mattresses."

For sustenance, the Palestinians and activists have relied on the International Committee of the Red Cross, which periodically brings food and drinking water. A few days ago, the Norwegian ambassador brought a chocolate cake, which the Palestinians saved and served to the Powell delegation Sunday along with coffee--although there was no milk.

Arafat is reported by those inside to be in good spirits, but he appeared pale and thinner than usual when he met with Powell for three hours Sunday. As the members of Powell's media entourage waited for the secretary to come out and make a statement, three Palestinian journalists who had been trapped inside joined them--mainly to stand in the spring sunlight, they said. For 17 days, the compound's windows have been sealed because of fear of Israeli snipers, and this was the Palestinian journalists' first outing in the sun.

Arafat--who was known as Abu Ammar, or "father of war," during his time as a Palestine Liberation Organization guerrilla leader--is said to frequently make the rounds of his staff and the activists to find out how they are faring or remind them to stay away from the windows. Occasionally, he cracks a light joke or two, according to Mohammed Mesharqa, a Palestinian journalist with the newspaper Al Ayam who has been wiling away the hours recording events in his diary, writing poetry or watching CNN when the electricity is on.

One of the angriest people inside the compound is the only Israeli. Neta Golan, a 30-year-old therapist and activist, burst into the room in which Arafat and Powell were meeting to rail against U.S. policy.

"When hundreds are dying or being massacred in the West Bank, Powell meets with [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and calls him a friend," she told reporters. "But when six Israelis are killed in a suicide bombing, Powell will postpone meeting Arafat. Arab blood is cheap. As a Jew, I cannot accept that the world remains quiet."

The situation is leading to the "Talibanization" of the Palestinian street, Golan warned, referring to the fundamentalist regime that ruled Afghanistan until last year.

The reprieve from the siege didn't last long. The phones that went on shortly before Powell arrived shut off just after he left, according to Saeb Erekat, Arafat's senior advisor and a mediator with the U.S. team. And the water that was turned on Saturday was knocked out when an Israeli vehicle ran over the pipe Sunday.

When Powell arrived, the pipe was leaking on the ground outside--and there was again no water within.

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