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The World

Israel Tightens Its Noose on Arafat

Mideast: Pressure on the Palestinian leader mounts as troops move on to Nablus after a landmark seizure of Tulkarm.

January 22, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — His headquarters is flanked by Israeli tanks. The road to his front door has been blocked by a mountain of dirt, courtesy of the Israeli army. His territory is sliced into bits.

Day by day, Israel tightens the noose around Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian Authority president, whom Israel holds responsible for attacks on its citizens, is virtually cut off from the outside world at his headquarters in Ramallah and is under an ever more stifling siege.

On Monday, Israel launched another phase in its campaign to crush Palestinian militants and relegate Arafat to political oblivion.

Forces seized control of the major West Bank town of Tulkarm, in Israel's largest and most extensive incursion yet in nearly 16 months of fighting. It was the first time Israel has reoccupied in full a major Palestinian town or city since Israel and the Palestinians signed the landmark Oslo peace accords nearly nine years ago.

Early today, Israeli forces began moving into Nablus, the Palestinians' largest West Bank city. In fighting on the western edge of the city, five Palestinians were killed, nine arrested and an explosives lab discovered, the army said in a statement. Four Israeli soldiers were injured. A Palestinian security official said Israel had promised that the Nablus operation would be smaller in scope than the one carried out in Tulkarm, and within several hours of entering Nablus, the troops withdrew.

In Tulkarm before dawn Monday, scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled into the town from all sides, firing mounted machine guns against sporadic Palestinian resistance as paratroopers seized homes, took up positions and began rounding up alleged militants. Troops planted Israeli flags on top of several seized buildings, including the home of Mayor Mahmoud Jalad, witnesses said.

The army immediately slapped a 24-hour curfew on residents, ordering all to remain inside.

In a house-to-house dragnet, 18 people were captured by dusk, the army said. Military footage showed Palestinian men, blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs, lying face down in homes that soldiers had searched. A large quantity of guns was confiscated.

"The people were caught by surprise and shock by the number of tanks and soldiers who occupied the city," Hassan Khreisheh, a member of the Palestinian legislature, said from his home in Tulkarm, where he saw four tanks outside his window. "Some people told me they did not see this many tanks and soldiers in the 1967 occupation," when Israel conquered the West Bank.

Two Palestinians were killed in Tulkarm and two in Ramallah in the day's fighting. No Israeli casualties were reported in either area. Early today, after holding the town for about 30 hours, Israeli forces began withdrawing from Tulkarm.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Tulkarm was a hotbed of terrorist activity and the first of several West Bank areas that his army plans to lay siege to.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the raid on Tulkarm came in response to last week's shooting at a bat mitzvah celebration in the city of Hadera in which six Israelis were killed by a member of a militia affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement. Since Friday, Israeli forces have stationed tanks and armored personnel carriers outside Arafat's offices in Ramallah.

"We are trying to eradicate a terror network," government spokesman Avi Pazner said Monday night. "We are doing the job that Arafat is supposed to do."

Pazner said the operation is designed to dismantle the "terrorist infrastructure" that Israel believes was being used in Tulkarm by Fatah militants as well as the radical Islamic organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But the United Nations, through its special Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, said the Tulkarm operation represented a "dangerous escalation" by Israel that will only cost more lives on both sides of this raging conflict.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, army chief of staff, said the Tulkarm incursion is temporary and fell short of a full reoccupation because Israel will not establish a military government there.

Col. Chen Livni, commander of the Tulkarm operation, said his troops can achieve only so much.

"In the short term, we can destroy the terror infrastructure," he told Israeli television Monday night. "But not forever. Terrorism is also fed by things that cannot be destroyed in a military operation."

The Israeli government's stated goal behind all of the pressure on Arafat is to force him to arrest suspects in attacks on Israelis, especially the assassins of a Cabinet minister killed in October. Sharon's aides say his ultimate goal is to so diminish Arafat's status that the Palestinian leader's own people will decide they are better off without him.

Arafat responded defiantly Monday to his predicament, vowing to fight to the death for a Palestinian state. He said Israel had "crossed all the red lines" with its invasion of Tulkarm.

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