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The World

Israel Once More Forces Arafat Into House Arrest

Military: Incursion is the second time this spring that the Palestinian leader has been hemmed in. But officials insist militants are their target.

June 11, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KALANDIYEH, West Bank — Instead of presiding over the first session of his newly seated Cabinet, an increasingly isolated Yasser Arafat spent Monday trapped in the remnants of his shattered headquarters as Israeli tanks and helicopters laid siege to the city of Ramallah.

It was the second time this spring that the Palestinian leader has been hemmed into house arrest by the Israeli government. On Monday, while dozens of tanks groaned in the streets of Ramallah and the smoke of shelled buildings climbed into the sky, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon posed beside a White House fireplace and bemoaned the lack of a regional peace partner. At his side, President Bush said "Israel has a right to defend herself" from an escalating string of Palestinian attacks.

In what has become routine, Israeli soldiers thundered into Ramallah before dawn Monday, ordered everybody to stay behind locked doors and swept through the streets of the West Bank city in search of radicals. By nightfall, two bomb-rigged cars and 27 suspected activists had been rounded up, including a would-be suicide bomber who was "ready to be sent," according to Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Last week, Israel demolished most of Arafat's compound with dynamite, tanks and bulldozers. On Monday, Israeli officials insisted, soldiers ringed the headquarters only to keep fleeing Palestinian gunmen from seeking shelter within its broken walls. The raid was a swipe at the militants of Ramallah, Israelis said--not a punishment of Arafat.

"When we have intelligence, we have no choice but to go in there and take action," Ben-Eliezer said.

Raids on Palestinian villages have become so common that jaded Israeli officials now dismiss them as "routine patrols." Still, the seizure of Ramallah was particularly swift and intense.

The Reuters news agency, Abu Dhabi television and Jordanian television were locked out of their offices when troops stormed a building with a strategic view of a refugee camp. Soldiers blockaded hospitals and crashed into the Ramallah police station to seize 30 patrolmen and caches of weapons. By midmorning, the Voice of Palestine had cut its radio broadcasts.

One Palestinian was reported killed in the fighting, and two injured. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded. It was late afternoon before ambulances managed to reach the victims.

U.N. workers spent hours in the scorching sun at this checkpoint just outside Ramallah, trying to cajole Israeli soldiers to open the gate for a moment. An ambulance was waiting to carry a woman across for surgery, they argued. The soldiers refused--Ramallah, along with its suburbs and refugee camps, was clamped tightly shut.

Israeli forces also arrested about 15 suspects in the West Bank city of Hebron on Monday, Palestinians said. The suspects will take their places alongside the thousands already marking time in the dusty tent cities that serve as makeshift military detention centers.

Even as Israeli forces interrogated and locked away suspected Palestinian militants, they freed an ailing Lebanese guerrilla prisoner after 15 years in jail. Handcuffed Hezbollah fighter Mohammed Barzawi was turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross at a border shack in what Israeli officials touted as a humanitarian gesture. Israel is negotiating with Hezbollah for the bodies of three soldiers captured by the Lebanese guerrillas two years ago, Associated Press reported.

Monday's Ramallah siege forced Arafat's brand-new Palestinian Cabinet to cancel its first meeting. Hours before the raids began, the Palestinian leader had trimmed the Cabinet's ranks and shuffled some ministers into different jobs. The reorganization was a response to a widespread call for reform, and angry ministers accused Israel of using the attack on Ramallah to cripple Arafat's efforts.

Sharon "wants to weaken the Palestinian Authority and to destroy the Palestinian infrastructure," Palestinian spokesman Yasser Abed-Rabbo said. Minister Nabil Shaath accused Israel of trying to "sabotage any progress."

Since his compound was trashed last week, Arafat has been making small shows of reform. On Sunday, Palestinian security forces arrested a leader of Islamic Jihad, the radical group that claimed responsibility for a massive car bomb that blew up alongside an Israeli bus last week, killing 17 passengers.

Meanwhile, the Israeli raids take a hard toll on the Palestinians. Ramallah has spent weeks this spring under strict curfew. On Monday, its people steeled themselves for yet another siege.

"The children are scared to death--they hear shooting all night and they can't sleep," housewife Abeer Bahour said. Her 8-year-old daughter was supposed to pick up her report card and begin summer vacation Monday. Instead, the family spent the day cowering in dim, stifling rooms, wishing they'd bought more bread.

"We're afraid to open a window, afraid to step outside," Bahour said.

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