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Israeli Forces Knocking at Arafat's Gate

West Bank: Army takes up positions across Ramallah and blows up radio station after Thursday's deadly attack by a Palestinian militant.

January 19, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Boys gagging on tear gas lay sprawled in Yasser Arafat's driveway Friday. Behind the closed black gate of his compound, Arafat's guards sulked. About 200 feet away, Israeli soldiers in tanks and armored carriers seized positions, closer to Arafat than ever.

Retaliating for a deadly terrorist attack the night before, Israeli forces Friday tightened their siege on the Palestinian Authority president by a few more notches, closing in on his headquarters and reoccupying large chunks of this most important of Palestinian cities. And early today, Israeli forces blew up the Ramallah broadcasting offices of the Voice of Palestine radio station.

The reprisals came after six Israelis were killed late Thursday by a Palestinian gunman who opened fire wildly on a bat mitzvah celebration in the northern Israeli city of Hadera. The assailant, from a militia affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement, also was killed.

On Friday, Israeli fighter jets leveled a Palestinian government complex, including a prison, in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. One policeman was killed and about 40 other people were wounded, among them several prisoners.

But it was in Ramallah that Israel attempted to drive home the point that it holds Arafat responsible for the Hadera attack and the killings of two Jewish settlers and an Israeli soldier by Palestinian gunmen earlier in the week.

"Israel reserves the right of self-defense," Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Friday, a day of consultations with military chiefs to weigh further action. "We will retaliate in every way and when we find it appropriate."

In a show of force, Israeli armor and paratroopers thrust into this city and took up positions near the homes of several key Palestinian leaders. They also seized a hill above Arafat's headquarters. Israeli forces previously had moved into some of the same areas, but on Friday they came closer than before.

About 2:30 this morning, about 20 tanks and armored vehicles surrounded the five-story Voice of Palestine building, witnesses said. Soldiers removed documents, then lay charges on the third floor, where the main news offices were located. The explosion set the building on fire and destroyed much of the interior.

When the soldiers approached, the building was empty except for guards, who fled. Israel has accused Voice of Palestine of airing inflammatory and anti-Israeli broadcasts. Palestinians counter that Israel is trying to silence them. The station resumed broadcasting around dawn, apparently using an alternative site.

An Israeli army spokeswoman early today would only confirm "army activity" in the radio station's vicinity.

Arafat has been under virtual house arrest in Ramallah for the last six weeks, confined largely to his stone-and-concrete compound, since a spate of deadly attacks in early December.

Palestinian men and boys rushed to the street in front of Arafat's compound after Friday noontime prayers. They hurled stones at the tanks and burned tires, sending black acrid smoke into the sky. Israeli forces periodically fired stun grenades, punctuating the air with loud thuds, and rounds of tear gas that sent the youths fleeing back to the shelter of Arafat's driveway.

Four or five people were reported injured, mostly by rubber-coated steel bullets.

The clashes were mild by recent standards. But the fact that they erupted on Arafat's doorstep--something not seen in the last 15 1/2 months of conflict--was further sign of the deterioration of the aging leader's grasp on power and the intensity with which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to be rid of him.

Many Palestinians believe that Sharon wants to reoccupy territory that the Palestinian Authority gained control over in the landmark Oslo peace accords more than eight years ago. And it is no secret that several of the prime minister's top generals are advocating just that.

Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the deputy chief of staff and leading contender to become the army's supreme commander, said wider deployment of Israeli troops is essential to ending Palestinian attacks. In an interview published in an internal military publication, Yaalon said seizing back the territories that Israel vacated and handed over to the Palestinians may become necessary.

"It could be that we will have to return to the territories that we withdrew from in the Oslo accords," Yaalon told the Intelligence Corps newsletter.

In a marathon Cabinet session that began Wednesday at midnight, military commanders argued for permission to carry out a full-scale, open-ended invasion and seizure of Palestinian territories, according to sources familiar with the discussion. It was a hotly argued debate, the sources said, and the idea was ultimately shelved.

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