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.
By MITCHELL LANDSBERG, TIMES STAFF WRITER
LATIMES - 22 Sept - 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."
Still, Khatib and Abu Rudaineh said conditions in the compound were not pleasant. With everyone concentrated in the single structure, it had become uncomfortably crowded. And Abu Rudaineh said Israeli troops destroyed water tanks Saturday, leaving the building without running water. He said he was not sure how much food and bottled water was left.
Asked if Israel planned to resupply the Palestinians, Dalal said, "At the moment, we're not planning to starve them out--but there is an intention to put them under pressure."
Palestinian leaders issued a statement Saturday that they said was endorsed by Arafat, although portions sounded as if they were coming directly from him. Veering from the third to the first person, it reiterated a call to Palestinians to halt attacks inside Israel but also sounded a note of defiance.
"We are ready for peace but not for capitulation," the statement read, "and we will not give up Jerusalem or a grain of our soil, which are guaranteed to us by international law.
"I reiterate my call to the Palestinian people and all our parties to halt any violent attacks inside Israel," it continued, "because Sharon exploits them as an excuse to harm our people and to turn Israeli and international public opinion against us. They do this to implement their conspiratorial plan against the peace of the brave."
Sharon has said Arafat's words are hollow because the Palestinian has been unable or unwilling to stop attacks on Israeli civilians such as Thursday's bus bombing in Tel Aviv. Arafat has said he cannot crack down on Palestinian extremists when he is under military occupation, not to mention siege.
The current standoff has made the possibility of peace talks between the two sides increasingly remote. The West Bank is under military occupation, with a strict curfew in most cities, including Ramallah. Despite the Israeli crackdown, Palestinian extremists carried out two suicide bombings in Israel last week.
Khatib said Arafat had been encouraged by "promises from the White House to intervene with the Israelis." But he said he saw little evidence of strong global support. He said that Arafat was damaged by President Bush's call earlier this year for a change in the Palestinian leadership and that the international community is too focused on Iraq to pay attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue now.
Like Khatib, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat spent Saturday making urgent calls to diplomats, asking that they exert pressure on Sharon to pull back. But he said he saw little evidence that his pleas would be answered. Gissin, Sharon's spokesman, acknowledged that there had been some calls urging restraint.
"There have been a lot of world leaders calling, concerned about Arafat," he said, his tone contemptuous. "I haven't heard one world leader calling to show concern over these poor victims in Tel Aviv."