Israel destroys Palestinian media building

Bombing yesterday retaliation for killings at bat mitzvah Wednesday

January 20, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

EL BIREH, West Bank - With smoke still wafting from the ruins, Salwa Libbdeh emerged from what was left of the five-story broadcasting building with two items salvaged from her office: a wicker basket and a map of future Palestine.

"I cleaned it up and took it away," said Libbdeh, a film director who worked on the second floor of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. headquarters, until the Israeli army blew it up shortly after midnight yesterday.

The map is nothing more than a cheap artifact. But for the Palestinian people, it represents everything they say Israel is trying to destroy by attempting to silence their protest voices with bombs and missiles.

"The infrastructure of the Palestinian people is being destroyed," said Abdul Jawad Saleh, a member of the Palestinian parliament. "Why doesn't the world say something? Are they afraid of criticizing Israel? Are they afraid of confronting America?"

Yesterday's controlled demolition was part of Israel's retaliation for Thursday's attack at a bat mitzvah party in the northern Israeli city of Hadera that left seven people dead, including the gunman, and 32 wounded - a shooting spree carried out by the militant wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's mainstream political party.

Israeli officials blame Arafat for every terror attack, complaining that he has failed to dismantle militant groups.

Yesterday's operation also was part of Israel's war against incitement, having long argued that Palestinian media stoke the flames of the deadly uprising by broadcasting hateful rhetoric and urging their listeners to take up arms.

Outside what was left of the building, shards of glass crunched beneath the feat of onlookers, private office memos mixed with small fiberglass strands of insulation flitting about in the soft breeze, and streams of black tape from videocassettes hung from tree limbs. Children scavenged for treasures.

"Everything is upside down," said Libbdeh as she joined streams of coworkers carting out desk drawers, piles of video footage and framed portraits of a smiling Arafat, his kafia-clad image covered with soot. "There is nothing left."

The demolition is added to a long list of strikes in recent months against symbols of Palestinian independence, part of a systematic campaign to blow up or bulldoze institutions that represent power, and to treat Arafat as an irrelevant leader. The army has bombed Arafat's helicopter fleet, routed the single runway of his international airport, blasted his port, seized a political office in East Jerusalem, toppled the tower of Voice of Palestine Radio that dominated the Ramallah skyline for a half-century and parked a tank within yards of the presidential compound.

Arafat has been unable to leave his walled office complex in Ramallah for six weeks, kept a virtual prisoner by the Israeli military whose commanders vow he will not be allowed out of the city until he arrests the killers of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Yesterday, soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers converged on the broadcasting building just north of Jerusalem, gave its skeleton staff 10 minutes to evacuate, confiscated selected documents and then distributed explosive charges on the floors and offices inside.

The force of the ensuing explosion sent a fireball high in the sky and knocked out windows of nearby homes, a kindergarten and cars. Half of the building collapsed, and the rest was quickly condemned by Palestinian firefighters, who were still dousing isolated pockets of flames 12 hours later.

Millions of dollars of equipment, most of it donated from the United States and Europe, was destroyed, along with television studios, administrative offices and the presidential film archives - piles of video clips showing Arafat meeting countless foreign dignitaries during the past several years.

But the voice was not silenced. The primary signal is sent to satellites from an office in the Gaza Strip, so most people in the West Bank could tune in to their favorite shows, news and music yesterday.

Voice of Palestine Radio, forced to broadcast on short-reaching AM bands since its tower was knocked down, boasted yesterday that the Israeli attack could not stop its message. "We will continue the struggle," an announcer said.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the purpose of the attack was not necessarily to knock Palestinian television and radio off the air, but "to send Arafat a very clear message that we will continue a sustained military operation as long as terror attacks continue."

Gissin said the broadcasts incite and provoke violence, and therefore the building "was a legitimate target. We will continue to put more such pressure on Arafat. This seems to be the only language that he understands."

The Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. was launched in 1994, a year after the Oslo peace accords granted the Palestinians limited autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It covered Arafat's historic return from exile that year.

It is viewed as the independent voice of the Palestinian people, and officials said destroying it proves Israel is laying the groundwork to retake the West Bank and Gaza Strip by force and put it back under Israeli military rule.

The radio station's director, Bassem Abu Sumaya, said the Israelis "don't want any other voice other than Israel's voice. We incite people? We call for a war against Israel? When Israel destroys the institutions of the people, they do a better job of incitement then we do."

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