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The World

Fenced-In Arafat Finds Few Allies Outside

Mideast: Palestinian appeals to world leaders, but the response is discouraging. Soldiers hoist the Israeli flag over his destroyed compound.

September 22, 2002|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Trapped and surrounded, his water supply dwindling and his headquarters reduced largely to rubble, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appealed to the international community Saturday to press for a halt to an Israeli offensive that has threatened not only his authority but the very walls around him.

As the blast of artillery shells gave way to the drone of Israeli bulldozers outside the office building where he and about 200 others were fenced in, Arafat spent the day talking to diplomats and world leaders, urging them to rein in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But top Palestinian officials said the response was discouraging, and a spokesman for Sharon said the prime minister had no intention of bowing to pressure in his campaign to isolate Arafat.

"We stated this very clearly," said the spokesman, Raanan Gissin. "We have an intention to isolate Arafat--and to bring about the extradition of those terrorists who are wanted and who found sanctuary in his compound. This operation will continue as long as necessary."

In a forceful display of that resolve, Israeli soldiers Saturday took down a Palestinian flag flying above the compound and replaced it with the Israeli flag.

Late in the day, sources inside the compound said, Israeli troops broadcast an order for the Palestinians to evacuate, warning that large gas tanks in the wreckage of an adjoining building were in danger of exploding. An army spokeswoman said she was unaware of any such danger but acknowledged that the military was trying to get everyone out of the building.

Israel insists that it has no intention of harming Arafat.

Shortly after midnight, a wave of demonstrations swept through West Bank cities despite a military curfew. In Ramallah, about 200 residents, drawn by appeals broadcast from mosques, began marching toward Arafat's compound. In dispersing the demonstrators, Israeli troops killed four people: two in Ramallah, one in Nablus and one in Tulkarm, according to hospital officials. A Palestinian radio reporter was among the dead.

Israel launched the assault on the Palestinian Authority president's compound Thursday within hours of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that left six civilians dead. Tanks surrounded the fenced-in complex, which had been heavily damaged in earlier attacks, and began blowing up and razing virtually every remaining structure but Arafat's executive office building.

By Saturday morning, the shelling had stopped and the Israelis were engaged in demolition cleanup. A Palestinian flag flew above Arafat's office window, but the view took in bonfires, piles of rubble and well-armed units of the two Israeli battalions deployed in the siege.

Israeli authorities estimated that of those holed up with Arafat, 20 or more were wanted by Israel for alleged terrorist acts. They included Tawfiq Tirawi, the Palestinian intelligence chief in the West Bank, who Palestinians confirmed was inside the building. Among the others, the authorities said, were the commander of the presidential guard, Mahmoud Damra, and Khaled Shawish, a senior member of the guard.

Thirty-eight people surrendered to Israeli soldiers Friday and early Saturday, but a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said none of them was on the wanted list.

"Most of them have been released, [and] the rest are going to be released," said the spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dalal.

However, Dalal said the Israelis had underestimated the number of wanted fugitives inside the compound. As of Saturday, they believed that there were an undetermined number more than the 19 originally thought to be inside.

"It turns out that this compound has become a haven for terrorists," Dalal said.

Palestinians scoffed at such assertions and said Israel had not handed over any list of the people it was seeking, although some names had been mentioned publicly. Palestinian leaders said they believed that the demand was a pretext for assaulting the headquarters.

Arafat, who is no stranger to living under siege, was reported to have spent Saturday juggling routine chores and taking calls from aides and foreign leaders. Among those who called, according to spokesman Nabil abu Rudaineh, were Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

Arafat was, by several accounts, in good spirits, despite being surrounded by his longtime foe. In addition to tearing down all of the buildings around Arafat's, the Israelis destroyed the stairwell in his building, leaving him unable to leave the second floor.

"In general, he has high morale," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian labor minister, who spent the first day of the siege in the compound with Arafat and had kept in close touch with him by telephone since. "Because, you know, with a person such as Arafat, with all the experiences he's had--he's not panicked at all."

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