RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israel's army launched new strikes yesterday against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, this time targeting the West Bank headquarters where he was working, a few hours after Israel branded his Palestinian Authority a terrorist entity.
Arafat was in an office about 30 yards from where missiles launched by helicopters punctured a hole in a small police post. Arafat was unhurt but eight security officers were injured.
Israeli officials said the strike was deliberately close to Arafat to send him a warning that even the heart of Palestinian government is vulnerable to attack, and as a signal that this was just one stage of a broad campaign that could escalate in the coming days. The offensive comes after suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa last weekend killed 25 people and injured more than 200.
Israeli officials say their goal is not to topple or kill Arafat but to eradicate extremist groups. Officials compare those groups operating in Palestinian territories to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and the help he received from the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin called the military strikes "an enduring operation" designed to force Arafat to dismantle terror groups and will be over only when "we don't have to count the bodies of our children on Jerusalem sidewalks."
Gissin said that "all pressure will be exerted on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to bring him to realize that terrorism doesn't pay. They are under some illusion that eventually it does pay. There is no more game. No more messing with us."
Sharon, visiting troops in the field yesterday, told them to be aggressive but also urged them to conduct pinpoint attacks to avoid civilian casualties. One of several raids by F-16 jets in the Gaza Strip killed a Palestinian police officer and a teenage boy.
Missiles from a warplane also destroyed a security office in Gaza City and damaged a nearby school, sending frightened, bloodied children running into the streets. As they ran, a second missile hit the building, injuring even more. Military officials said the jets flew low over the city before the strike to warn that an attack was on the way. They said they targeted only military installations.
Yesterday's offensive has far-reaching implications and threatens not only Arafat's regime, but also Sharon's unity government and a new U.S. peace initiative.
As aircraft attacked Palestinian security posts, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres talked of taking his Labor Party out the coalition, which could cause it to crumble and force early elections. Peres and the Labor Party view Arafat as a viable negotiating partner, and fear that Sharon's goal is to crush the Palestinian Authority.
"In the cabinet meeting, there was an attempt to make a decision whose definition would have been to destroy the Palestinian Authority, in effect to lean only on power without political hope," Peres said in a statement.
The Labor Party is scheduled to meet today to decide whether to remain in the government. Many of its members are urging the party to leave, saying they are no longer able to restrain Sharon. Sharon's right-wing Likud party called any attempt to disrupt government unity akin to treason during wartime. Meanwhile, U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni, who arrived here Nov. 26 to broker a cease-fire and has encountered nonstop violence, canceled his slate of meetings yesterday for the second consecutive day.
Early today, an apparent suicide bomber killed himself and injured three bystanders in an explosion outside a hotel in Jerusalem.
A Jerusalem police spokesman said at least three people had suffered minor injuries in the explosion, just after 7:35 a.m.
Palestinian leaders lashed out at the strikes and said Sharon's only objective was to oust Arafat from power at gunpoint and dismantle the Palestinian Authority. "The Israelis have declared a comprehensive war on us," said Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Arafat's Fatah political faction. "Mr. Arafat is the only one who can lead a peace process and bring security to the region."
Barghouti stood outside the bombed police post at Arafat's headquarters, smoke still pouring out of its broken faM-gade and ambulances rushing to treat the injured, and said the uprising will continue. "After 15 months of bloodshed on both sides, I feel we should ask who is responsible," he said. "The answer is Mr. Sharon himself. They cannot achieve security by force. They have tried for the past 15 months. Do they feel safe?"
An Israeli army commander who spoke on the condition he not be named said the strike at Arafat's headquarters, which badly damaged a police post near the front entrance to the Interior Ministry, was a carefully chosen political target. "We're trying to tighten the noose around Arafat's neck," the official said. "If we wanted to kill him, we could have done it. This is our kind of pressure."