Israeli tanks end siege of Arafat's office

Army units inch away from ruined compound, keep grip on Ramallah

Palestinians declare victory

U.S. and United Nations pressed for withdrawal

September 30, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Bowing to pressure from the United States, the Israeli army pulled out of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound yesterday and ended a 10-day siege that left the complex nearly destroyed.

The last tank turned its turret away from Arafat's office and rumbled away about 2 p.m., kicking up a cloud of dust in its wake. Dozens of Palestinians raced behind it, fought through a small opening in a 6-foot-high coil of barbed wire and rushed to the one building still intact.

A police officer leaned out a window and waved his gun as people outside raised the Palestinian flag over another building that was on the brink of collapse.

Inside, a tired-sounding Arafat complained that Israeli troops had moved back only a few hundred yards.

"This is not a withdrawal," he told reporters. "This is only moving a few meters away. They are trying to deceive the world."

Later, he emerged to greet the crowd. Dwarfed by piles of sandbags on either side of a doorway and facing a wasteland of destruction, he waved briefly, blew kisses and flashed the V-sign for victory. In a statement, he urged militant groups to uphold a cease-fire.

But the 73-year-old leader was not completely free. The Israeli army had withdrawn to positions it held before taking the compound Sept. 19, after a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv killed six people. Israeli forces remained in full control of Ramallah, which has been occupied since June.

Army officials say they have not given up on capturing about 50 suspected militants wanted by Israel and believed to be holed up in Arafat's building. Troops were stationed outside the compound to stop and question everyone who leaves and to arrest those they want.

"We decided today to lift the siege ... but with that to take steps to prevent the escape of the terrorists who are fortifying themselves in the compound," Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told Cabinet ministers.

Palestinian officials said last night that most of the wanted men had slipped out. Israeli officials denied this, saying the most senior of the wanted men remained inside.

Israel was obliged to pull out in the face of increasing international criticism, a United Nations resolution that demanded an immediate withdrawal and a series of unusually terse, private statements from U.S. officials that the siege was counterproductive.

U.S. officials were concerned that the siege was diverting attention from the growing crisis with Iraq. It would have been nearly impossible for the United States to persuade the United Nations to pass a tough resolution on Iraq while its close ally Israel flouted a U.N. resolution on Arafat.

"We must not interfere with American moves against Iraq," Ben-Eliezer told the Israeli Cabinet. "Neutralizing Iraq as a threat is of prime interest to the state of Israel."

In Texas, where President Bush was vacationing, the White House praised the Israeli withdrawal but said the Palestinians also should act to promote peace.

"The president is pleased with this development," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said yesterday. "Both parties need to live up to the requirements for peace, stability, as well as reform in the Palestinian Authority."

The Israeli siege had given a boost to Arafat's popularity and stifled internal talk of democratic reforms at a time when the Palestinian leader had lost much of his credibility and was about to be stripped of power by the appointment of a prime minister.

A poll by the Palestinian-owned Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, taken at the height of the siege as Israeli bulldozers were ripping apart buildings, found that nearly 61 percent of respondents expect Arafat to be re-elected in elections scheduled for January. That is up from 47 percent in June.

There also had been growing talk among top Palestinian officials about ending attacks in Israel and continuing the uprising with nonviolent protests. However, even Arafat's harshest critics could not talk about such changes while their leader was trapped by the Israeli army.

But hours after the tanks withdrew, Palestinian legislators issued a statement urging a reassessment as the armed uprising enters its third year. More than 1,600 Palestinians and 623 Israelis have been killed since the intifada began in late September 2000.

But stemming violence might be difficult. The survey that indicated Arafat's resurgence also showed that more than 60 percent of those polled view suicide bombings as a productive way to force Israelis out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

And Hamas has vowed revenge for Israel's attempted assassination Thursday of the Palestinian militant group's top bomb-maker, Mohammed Deif, in Gaza. Deif apparently escaped, but two of his aides were killed in the helicopter attack.

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