Ramallah siege ends

Israeli army withdraws, freeing Arafat to move

Six wanted Palestinians are taken to Jericho jail under U.S., British watch

May 02, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Israel ended its monthlong siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters last night after six men wanted by Israel were driven from his compound to a jail in Jericho and placed under the supervision of American and British security officials.

Israeli soldiers who had surrounded the wreckage of Arafat's compound since March 29 emptied sandbags from office windows, coiled barbed wire and backed away tanks as their forces withdrew from the city last night and early this morning.

For the first time in 33 days, Arafat and up to 200 others trapped in several rooms were free to move about. It was unclear when the 73-year-old leader would leave and where he would go, but his spokesman said Arafat would not travel until the Israeli army had left all Palestinian-controlled land.

Palestinians celebrated in the early morning hours in the streets, singing, "With our souls, we will sacrifice our lives for you, Arafat."

The end of the Ramallah siege left one standoff unresolved - at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - and Israeli and Palestinian leaders had yet to schedule talks about arranging a formal cease-fire. Though tensions between the two sides have dropped, no formal peace negotiations are taking place.

There were reports of an exchange of gunfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians inside the church last night. Amid the gunfire, three buildings in the church compound caught fire under unexplained circumstances, but the fires were put out within an hour.

At his Ramallah compound, Arafat appeared to shake with anger as he received word of fire at the church.

"How could the world possibly be silent about this atrocious crime," he told Palestinian supporters and journalists who rushed into his offices after the Israelis pulled out of his compound. "I don't care if this room I'm sitting in blows up. What concerns me is what is happening at the Church of the Nativity. This is a crime that cannot be forgiven."

Arafat has been inside his compound in Ramallah for five months. Israel began its siege in December, confining him to Ramallah. Tanks then moved to his compound, trapping him inside. The army withdrew briefly but returned March 29 after a suicide bombing killed 28 Israelis. The army penetrated the compound's concrete walls and confined Arafat to a few rooms.

Arafat, along with his top aides, police and an assortment of peace activists, remained trapped. Israel demanded that the six Palestinians - five suspected in the killing of Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi on Oct. 17 and the sixth suspected of involvement in obtaining a shipload of arms - be turned over for trial in Israel.

A one-day trial inside Arafat's headquarters convicted four of the men in Zeevi's killing, sentencing the gunman, Hamdi Qaran, to 18 years in prison with hard labor. But Israel demanded the six be turned over to Israel for trial. The impasse ended when both sides accepted President Bush's proposal to move the six to a jail in Jericho, where they will be watched over by American and British wardens.

After days of negotiations, the carefully orchestrated transfer took place last night. British Land Rovers and American Chevrolet Suburbans arrived at the compound escorted by Israeli army jeeps about 7:30.

Officials spent about two hours verifying the identity of each prisoner and then agreed that Israeli snipers on the compound's roof should leave. Israeli army officials said the Palestinians sought at the last minute to surrender only four men.

Each prisoner was escorted to a separate vehicle with darkened windows. One prisoner was in a wheelchair, and three were in handcuffs. They were driven to Jericho, the only Palestinian city untouched by Israeli soldiers in the past month of fighting and the only one with a jail that remains standing.

Esham Hamdi Qaran, the 48-year-old mother of the man convicted of killing the Israeli Cabinet minister, came to the compound yesterday in an unsuccessful attempt to see her son. "I'm scared of what will happen in Jericho," she said, crying at the barbed wire that cordoned off the area. "Why do they have to bring him to Jericho," she sobbed, "and not keep him here in Ramallah?"

But she did not blame Arafat. "I think he did this because he was under pressure from America and not just so he could get out of his compound," she said, adding that she is proud of what her son did. "He hurt the heart of the Israeli government."

In addition to the four men convicted of their direct involvement in Zeevi's killing, the two others transferred to Jericho were Maj. Gen. Fuad al-Shobaki, Arafat's chief financial officer, and Ahmed Sa'adat, West Bank leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The PFLP had claimed responsibility for Zeevi's killing. Yesterday, the group's headquarters, based in Damascus, Syria, accused Arafat of betraying the Palestinian people by handing over the prisoners.

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