Israel halts assault on Arafat's compound

White House said siege would not end terrorism

September 23, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The Israeli army abruptly stopped its assault on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound yesterday after the White House said the siege would not curb terrorism.

Shortly before dusk, giant bulldozers and other heavy equipment rumbled out of the once-sprawling complex, leaving just a few buildings and stories-tall piles of smoldering rubble.

Arafat and up to 250 people have been confined since the Israeli army stormed the Mukata compound Thursday night in retaliation for Palestinian suicide bombings that killed seven people last week.

Criticizing the siege, White House spokeswoman Jeanne Mamo said: "Israel's actions in and around [Arafat's compound] are not helpful in reducing terrorist violence or promoting Palestinian reforms. We urge Israel to continue considering the consequences of its actions."

U.S. pressure was applied by others as well. Israeli news media reported last night that U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his farm Saturday night and urged him to back off from the demolition.

But it was unclear whether the halt is permanent.

Army officials said Israel does not intend to target Arafat, and the bulldozers stopped because their work is complete and a siege can go only so far in forcing someone to give up. Because some buildings remain standing, the remarks contradict earlier statements in which they had vowed to destroy every building except the one containing Arafat's office and living quarters.

The Israeli army is using other forms of psychological pressure on Arafat, such as giant spotlights and periodic warning shots from tank guns.

A senior army commander said food and other amenities would not be withheld. He noted that Palestinian workers were allowed in to restore water and electrical services that his crews had accidentally knocked out.

He said the raising of an Israeli flag over the compound Saturday had been a mistake, the act of an overzealous soldier. The flag was taken down yesterday.

"We don't want to occupy this place," he said. "We don't need it. We just want the wanted people to come out."

However, the Israeli commander said the army would not leave until 50 men inside the compound who are accused of aiding Palestinian militant groups are in custody.

Arafat's prospects remain unclear after the latest actions.

What army officials said yesterday about the goals of the assault - the third since March - seems to match what Sharon has said.

But experts on both sides said yesterday that Sharon's goal is much larger - to make Arafat so miserable he will eventually give up and ask to be exiled. Sharon says Arafat is an obstacle to the reforms needed to end the two-year uprising and has made no secret of his desire to oust him.

Observers doubt that Arafat will capitulate. The 73-year-old leader of the Palestinian Authority, who is known for extricating himself from tough situations, ended a siege in April by sending several men wanted by Israel to a Palestinian jail under American supervision.

Though Arafat escaped 34 days of Israeli confinement, he paid a price - his people called the move a surrender to Israel. Now, Arafat is faced with a similar crisis, and it appears that his options are limited.

Arafat said Saturday that he would not give anyone up to Israel or leave his compound. But he has indicated that he would rein in militant groups such as Hamas to end the latest siege.

Yet Palestinian officials said last night that they were working on a proposal to end the siege in much the same way a 39-day standoff was ended in May at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. In that case, Palestinians wanted by Israel agreed to go into exile - most to the Gaza Strip and some abroad.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials, along with Israeli and Palestinian academics and politicians, are growing concerned that Israel's actions are backfiring - bolstering Arafat's image when it is at its lowest point in years.

"Even the people who oppose Arafat can't say a word now," said Danny Rubinstein, an Israeli newspaper columnist and political science professor at Bersheva University.

Columnist Uzi Benziman wrote yesterday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that "the problem is that the government failed again to consider that its policy will turn the Palestinian Authority leader into a tormented martyr."

"Putting Arafat under siege and trying to cripple him in his headquarters is giving him more legitimacy on the street," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent research group.

Thousands of Palestinians defied curfews and marched here and in other West Bank cities Saturday and yesterday to protest the siege.

Palestinian leaders have declared a general strike for today, sought help from Arab nations and urged people to resist the Israeli operation.

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