RAMALLAH, West Bank — First the tanks and armored bulldozers punched holes in the high brick perimeter walls that shielded Yasser Arafat's headquarters and sanctuary.
Then they smashed through the metal gates on three sides of the compound, which takes up a city block. The black iron door that once glided open for visiting dignitaries lay askew in the debris.
Now that they'd gained entry, the tanks and armored personnel carriers roared into the Palestinian Authority president's parking lot and across his helipad, homing in on three buildings that were the heart of the headquarters.
Arafat's offices, where he had been confined for more than three months, are in the middle building.
The building to the east is the intelligence division, where the Israeli forces opened a garage-size hole in the facade and then strafed it with sustained fire from heavy-caliber tank-mounted machine guns.
The building to the west is the governor's offices. There, too, troops opened a gap and blew a metal door off its hinges. Inside, they shot through each room and tossed stun grenades for good measure.
They also smashed the snack bar. A red soft-drink vending machine and an ice cream stand protruded from the rubble.
The region's most powerful army was a well-armed wrecking crew Friday.
Piece by piece, Israeli forces were dismantling Arafat's headquarters, his power base. With it, the army of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was symbolically dismantling Arafat's legendary mystique as the ultimate survivor. Arafat was no longer in charge but utterly besieged, trapped in a couple of rooms, surrounded by the enemy.
Sharon says he is dismantling the "terror infrastructure" that he charges Arafat built and operated out of his headquarters, after the Palestinian leader failed to stop a deadly wave of suicide bombings and gun attacks by Palestinian militants.
Throughout much of Friday, the Israelis pounded the headquarters with stun grenades--more for psychological impact than actual damage--and fought sporadic gun battles with Arafat's guards. They shelled the intelligence office, and snipers were posted in spots.
A mighty Merkava tank belching black smoke pulled up and parked in the driveway on the western side of the compound, a few yards from Arafat's office. It swiveled and bobbed its turret, returning always to its main target, the heart of the compound.
Two armored personnel carriers roared past the Merkava, stopped at the hole in the wall of the governor's offices, opened their hatches and disgorged their troops. The men conducted room-to-room searches for weapons and suspects.
Infantry had also entered the intelligence building on the eastern flank. Arafat was essentially caught in a pincers movement, with soldiers inching toward him from two sides.
"Probably they will reach him in the end," a Palestinian security official said.
Arafat used the time to grant one interview after another to Arabic-language television stations and to telephone various foreign leaders to appeal for help.
The facade of the intelligence building was splattered with copper-colored scorch marks. The air was full of grayish dust from the debris, patted down periodically by a cold rain.
Israeli Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, head of the Central Command that oversees the West Bank, said his forces had seized control of all of the compound except the floor of the building where Arafat lives.
Israel has intimate familiarity with Arafat's building. The three-story structure served as the Israeli military base until Israel withdrew from Ramallah in 1995 as part of the landmark Oslo accords that were to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank. The bottom floor has guard rooms, the middle floor houses Arafat's office, dining room and sleeping quarters, and the top has more offices.
Part of it was built originally as a prison during the British mandate period.
Fighting subsided by nightfall Friday, but between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. today, steady bursts of machine-gun fire and a huge explosion could be heard at the compound.
Beyond it, most of Ramallah was a ghost town Friday. Stores and offices were shut, and few people, except gunmen, ventured outside. Dozens of tanks and other armored carriers were seen moving through the city.