Israel expands `war' as violence escalates

Suicide bomber kills 15 and injures 35 in Haifa restaurant

Sharon: `No compromise'

Fighting continues at Arafat compound in the West Bank

April 01, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - As Israel began to broaden its West Bank offensive and Palestinians continued their deadly wave of suicide bombings, the standoff between the Israeli military and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat showed no signs of easing yesterday.

At least 15 Israelis were killed when a bomber blew himself up in a crowded restaurant in the northern port city of Haifa, the latest in a string of attacks that have killed more than 40 people since Wednesday.

"The state of Israel is in a war," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a televised address, his second in four days. He added that his army's siege and partial destruction of Arafat's walled compound in Ramallah, and other military actions, will end "only after terrorism is eradicated." He left Arafat's fate unclear.

Marking a widening of the operation in the West Bank, Israeli tanks entered Bethlehem early today, stopping 500 yards from the Church of the Nativity, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus, witnesses said. The incursion began at 5:30 a.m., just before sunrise. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

About 60 Israeli tanks, along with bulldozers, moved into Qalqiliya late yesterday, said the Palestinian governor, Mustafa Malki. The Israeli forces quickly took control of town, in the northern part of the West Bank next to the line with Israel. The military said troops were searching for suspects and weapons and intended to "destroy the terrorist infrastructure" in the town.

Also, the Israeli military said today that soldiers had seized positions overlooking the West Bank town of Tulkarm, near Qalqiliya, tightening the closure of the town.

As the violence escalates, Sharon and Arafat are sounding ever more defiant. In a five-minute speech, Sharon called Arafat "the enemy of Israel and of the free world," adding: "We will wipe out the infrastructure of terrorism.

"We cannot compromise with those who are ready ... to die only to kill innocent civilians," Sharon said.

"We must fight against this terrorism, fight with no compromise, pull up these wild plants by the roots, smash their infrastructure, because there is no compromise with terrorism," Sharon said. "This terrorism is used, directed and initiated by one man: Yasser Arafat."

Israeli officials say they must dismantle terror groups because Arafat is either incapable or unwilling to do so. The idea is to bomb the Palestinians into submission and isolate Arafat, who is surrounded at his Ramallah compound by 100 heavily armed guards and close supporters, eating canned meatloaf, pita bread and bottled water provided by Israel.

"This time we're going all the way," said Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Palestinian officials said Sharon has slammed the door on peace, and they pleaded for help from the international community. But with 20,000 Israeli army reservists being called up for duty, it appears that the region is bracing for a protracted and deadly battle.

Arafat, confined to three rooms in his ruined compound, said he will not be taken alive.

"I don't care if I die," he told television crews who managed to get inside as gunfights raged outside between his guards and Israeli troops. "I wish to be one of those Palestinian martyrs."

Still, both leaders said yesterday that peace is achievable. For Arafat, that would come only when Israeli troops withdraw to pre-1967 borders. For Sharon, peace talks would resume only after terror attacks end for good.

World leaders criticized the violence, seeking guarantees from Israel that Arafat will not be harmed and warning that the siege of the Palestinian leader's headquarters could lead to catastrophe.

Pope John Paul II, in his annual Easter address from the Vatican, called for an end to the "dramatic spiral of abuse of power and killings that bloody the Holy Land. ... It appears that war has been declared on peace."

The United States has been largely silent, refraining from criticizing Sharon but urging him to think about how his actions will affect negotiations. U.S. officials have imposed two restrictions on Sharon's initiative: Don't hurt Arafat, and leave a path to peace.

President Bush pledged yesterday that the two new suicide bombings would not discourage his Middle East peacemaking efforts, as senators from both parties urged him to get more involved.

The Bush administration offered no new initiatives and said U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni would remain in the region, trying to arrange a cease-fire.

Zinni is scheduled to meet with representatives of the United Nations, European Union and Russia to discuss plans. But the siege on Arafat prevents Zinni from shuttling between Arafat and Sharon to broker a deal. A U.S. Embassy official said Zinni has not seen or talked to Arafat since Friday.

For the past three days, Israeli soldiers have engaged Arafat's guards in room-to-room fighting. Yesterday, they arrested two suspected terrorists taking refuge in the complex.

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