RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sept. 20 – Israeli troops today tightened their noose around Yasser Arafat's office, blowing up three other buildings on the Palestinian leader's sprawling "Mukata" headquarters compound here and using bulldozers and earth-moving equipment to flatten around 11 small mobile homes on the grounds.
Arafat remained holed up in one of the two buildings left standing on the grounds, as the rest – already heavily damaged from past Israeli incursions – was reduced to dust and rubble. The earth-movers appeared to be trying to flatten and clear away the debris, leaving Israeli tanks and armor directly outside the one building where Arafat is huddled with aides and security guards. A Palestinian flag flew atop that building as the heavy equipment worked just a few feet away.
Aides inside the besieged building said Arafat remained unharmed, and spent the day praying – today, Friday, is the Moslem holy day – and telephoning world leaders seeking assistance. But unlike in April, when Arafat was similarly encircled in the Mukata compound, this time the Palestinian leader appeared far more "isolated," as the Israeli government has hoped, with few demands heard from world capitals for the return of Arafat's freedom of movement.
"I called the Americans. I called the Europeans. I called the Russians," said Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator. He said "they tell me they want to de-escalate the situation," but at this point "nobody" had offered any concrete plan to help. He said he asked Israel for permission to go to the compound, but was denied.
"I'm the main contact point with the Israelis, and I haven't been contacted by any of them," he said.
This latest Israeli action comes in response to Thursday's bloody suicide bombing on a bus in the commercial heart of Tel Aviv. That bombing, the second in two days, claimed a sixth victim today, when a visiting teen-age religious student from Glasgow, Scotland, died of serious head wounds he received. His cousin, also a Scottish visitor, was wounded in the blast.
As further signs of the Israeli retaliation for that bombing, Israeli troops in the early morning hours raided the Gaza Strip from three directions, North, South and East, and demolished what Israel said were 34 metal workshops being used by Palestinians to manufacture weapons. Two Palestinians, including a 25-year-old woman, were reported killed in the incursion, and about a dozen were wounded in shooting at Rafah, on the border with Egypt. Two Israeli soldiers were reported to have been lightly injured.
The fill Israeli government, which met in emergency session late Thursday, decided after some debate not to expel Arafat to Gaza or abroad, as some hardliners, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, had wanted. Some in the cabinet from the Labor Party, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, as well as the Shin Bet security service, had argued that expelling Arafat could backfire, gaining him international sympathy and making him a hero in the Arab world and in the occupied territories.
Sharon has long argued for the expulsion of his old nemesis Arafat. At one point in the spring event voiced the wish that he had killed the Palestinian leader in an earlier encounter when Sharon had him encircled, in Beirut in the early 1980s when Israeli troops pushed into Lebanon to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Arafat was pinned with his back to the sea. Arafat was rescued then by an American plan to exile the Palestinian leader to Tunis.
This time, Israel is insisting that it will keep Arafat isolated in the compound until some 19 men Israeli considers "wanted" surrender from inside. They include Tawfiq Tirawi, chief of the general intelligence service for the West Bank, who is accused of planning terrorist attacks, and Mahmoud Darma, head of Force 17, Arafat's personal security service, who Israeli accuses of leading a West Bank terrorist cell that has killed Israelis.
Ben-Eliezer, speaking on Army Radio, said, "We are not planning to use weapons or force, but to maintain the pressure so that everyone who is in there will come out."
Speaking of Arafat, he said, "As for the chairman, we have no intention of expelling him or firing at him. We want to isolate him."
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said he believed the demand for the wanted men was "a pretext." He said both Tirawi and Darma were living openly in Ramallah since Israeli troops entered the city in April, and "no one mentioned their names to me."
"I think it's to cover their real intentions," Erekat said. "I believe what we are witnessing is Sharon's end-game. Sharon is using the opportunity of the American's focus on Iraq to execute his end-game."
As part of that "end-game," Erekat, Sharon "wants to destroy the peace process. He wants to destroy the Palestinian Authority and he's done a damned good job of it. Third, he wants to expel of kill President Arafat, and he will do it. And fourth, he wants the re-occupation of the West Bank."
Some 20 people did come out of the compound and surrender early today, with their hands held in the air. But Israel said none of them were the fugitives they were seeking.
The Palestinians reported that one person inside the compound was shot and killed by an Israeli army sniper.
The siege could be long, and was reminiscent of the similar Israeli siege in April around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Then, as now, Israel demanded the surrender of Palestinian "fugitives" inside, and the standoff ended when the United States helped broker a deal to allow some of the Palestinians to be exiled abroad, and others to go to the Gaza Strip.
Some Palestinians at the time criticized that deal, saying it legitimized exile as a form of punishment for people Israel has deemed terrorist. Arafat may be under pressure not to agree to a similar deal this time.
Water and electricity was not cut to the compound, unlike last April when Arafat gained worldwide sympathy when he appeared holding press conferences by candlelight. This afternoon, electrical workers in cars were busy working around the compound, apparently making sure the electricity stayed on, even as the bulldozers continued their demolition.
Ramallah today was declared a closed military area, but some journalists, driving in armored vehicles, were able to venture up to the walls of the compound where the bulldozers were busy plowing down rubble.
The streets of Ramallah were largely deserted, with only a few people venturing outdoors and all shops and restaurants shuttered.
Residents living in the vicinity of Mukata compound said they spent a fearful night sheltered in their homes, hearing the shooting, and the sound of the explosions as the buildings on the grounds were blown up.
"There were many explosions, starting around 4:30 in the morning until now," said Abel Deis, who lives in a house on a hillside directly overlooking the compound. He said the last explosion came around noon, which seemed to be an already-damaged intelligence building that was brought down in a controlled explosion.
He said seven families lived inside the building where he has lived for 23 years. He said every time there is an attack against Israelis, like Thursday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, residents here brace for a new assault. "Even if we are not afraid, the kids will be afraid and we will be worried about them."
"We heard two strong explosions. We didn't know what they were," said Ibrahim Atari, a musician and university music teacher who has not seen much work in recent weeks. "It's very bad. It's scary. It's miserable for people who have young kids. We don't understand what they want here."
"The problem is not whether they open fire," he said. "The problem is that for the last six months, we don't know what they want from us. They impose a curfew, then they lift it. We don't know what they want, and we don't know if they know what they want. As a result, we cannot work, we can't do anything."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company