Israelis tighten grasp on Ramallah

Italian journalist, Arafat guard killed amid bitter fighting

March 14, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Israeli army tightened its hold on the Palestinian city of Ramallah yesterday, sending tanks into its central square, clamping a curfew on tens of thousands of people and turning streets into shooting galleries.

Most residents remained in their homes and left the city to soldiers and Palestinian gunmen. By the end of the day, three people had been shot to death - the deputy commander of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's presidential guard, an Israeli soldier and an Italian photographer.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces continued their occupation of refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as several Palestinian cities. More than a dozen Palestinians were killed.

Human rights groups accused the Israeli army of hampering medical treatment in Ramallah by shooting at ambulances and blockading a hospital. Medical workers said two people died, one from bullet wounds and another from diabetes, because ambulances could not reach them.

The battles in Ramallah are part of a sweeping Israeli military operation that began March 1 with raids on refugee camps to eliminate terrorist strongholds, arrest or kill militants, destroy bomb and missile factories, and confiscate weapons.

More than 20,000 troops are involved in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since the beginning of March, more than 160 Palestinians have been killed. Sixty Israelis have been killed by Palestinian suicide bombers or gunmen.

The United States has urged Israel to withdraw its forces in advance of today's arrival of peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni, but a pullback appears unlikely.

Terje Roed-Larson, the United Nations' special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said yesterday that Zinni might succeed, but only because the situation is dire, rather than out of either side's willingness to make concessions.

"We have fallen off the edge," Roed-Larson said. "We are in the abyss. The scale of the carnage is horrifying. There are rivers of blood every day."

Israeli officials gave mixed signals yesterday about when troops might be withdrawn from Ramallah. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the left-of-center Labor Party, urged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw and questioned the effectiveness of the invasion.

Israel state radio reported that the two argued, with Ben-Eliezer persuading Sharon not to take over Arafat's walled compound in the city.

A senior Foreign Ministry official told reporters that the occupation of Ramallah would probably end when Zinni arrived.

"It will be Zinni's first accomplishment," the Israeli official said.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said a "cease-fire is impossible as long as Israel is occupying Ramallah."

Arafat's office complex was almost the only part of Ramallah not overrun by Israeli forces. Troops entered the adjoining Amari refugee camp and began rounding up men and teens for questioning. By nightfall, two-thirds of the camp was in the hands of the Israeli army, Palestinians said.

A 21-year-old Israeli soldier riding a tank was killed in an intense gunbattle in Ramallah's al-Tireh neighborhood. Fuad Subhi, also known as Abu Fahdi, deputy commander of Arafat's elite Force 17, was killed during a firefight near Manara Square.

Also killed was free-lance Italian photographer Rafael Ciriello, 42, who was on assignment for Corriere della Sera. He was shot six times in the chest by a tank-mounted machine gun as he followed Palestinian gunmen through the center of Ramallah.

Ciriello is believed to be the first journalist killed during the nearly 18-month conflict, though many reporters and photographers have been wounded. Witnesses said he was with an Italian television crew and was clearly identifiable as a journalist.

The army expressed regret over the incident and said it would investigate. It warned that people venturing into the city were "endangering their own lives." A second photographer was wounded by shrapnel.

Ciriello was shot about 200 yards from Manara Square, a traffic circle decorated with lion sculptures and a gathering place for dozens of Palestinian gunmen. It was a haven, a place where they talked and regrouped as the Israeli army moved closer. Battles raged through the night near a small refugee camp near the square.

Tanks moved into the square last night for the first time, but quickly left. The army said it had no intention of occupying the city center. A tank fired on a Palestinian car suspected of transporting mortars through the square.

Reports from elsewhere in the city were grim. Most streets remained deserted except for Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and cars carrying journalists. A bakery opened on one street, and children ran to get bread.

Large parts of the city were without power, and water mains broke, spilling raw sewage on the streets. Two hospitals were hit by gunfire, though it was impossible to tell who was at fault, as soldiers and militants fought nearby.

Hospital officials accused Israeli troops of blocking access to the buildings and cutting off water and electricity. One hospital exhausted its oxygen supply. Doctors called the Israeli military and threatened to treat patients outside if access was not restored.

Roed-Larson said people in Ramallah "are facing a humanitarian crisis."

The Israeli army denied blockading hospitals and said it did not target ambulances or prevent them from moving about. But in the past 10 days, four paramedics have been killed in the West Bank.

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