Arafat digs in to defy Israeli siege

Middle East: Medical supplies allowed into HQ as Palestinian leader rejects Egyptian offer to fly him out
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The Independent Online

Still defiant in a windowless second-floor room of his Ramallah office with no electricity and only rapidly running-down mobile phones for communication, Yasser Arafat rejected lifebelts tossed his way by Egypt and the US yesterday.

President Hosni Mubarak offered to send his personal helicopter to fly the Palestinian leader to Cairo. The Americans offered to help him negotiate terms with the Israelis. According to a Palestinian official, however, Mr Arafat said he preferred to die a martyr than surrender.

Last night, Israel allowed six Palestinian ambulances to deliver relief supplies to Mr Arafat's office. The head of the medical team, Dr Husam Sharqawi, told The Independent on Sunday: "I thought Mr Arafat would be tired and drained. But he is incredibly on top of things. He spoke about never losing."

The Red Crescent team delivered bread, cheese and water. They found one dead policeman inside the building, bringing the confirmed Palestinian death toll for the two days of fighting to 12. Dr Sharqawi left behind two paramedics to tend wounded men, who refused to be taken to hospital because they were on Israel's wanted list.

Israeli troops spent the day digging in and rounding up more suspected militants amid scattered exchanges of small-arms fire. An army spokesman said they had arrested a total of about 80 since the Israelis invaded on Friday morning.

Colonel Rajib Rajoub, the Palestinian West Bank security chief, said last night that Israeli tanks had surrounded his Ramallah office and threatened to blow it up if he did not hand over wanted men hiding there. About 400 people are in the building.

Those arrested yesterday included four senior Palestinian military and political figures: Yunis Alass, director of operations in the preventive security force; Sakher Habash, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council; and two officers in Mr Arafat's Tanzim – Adel Karim Awish and Khader Debaya – accused of sending suicide bombers into Israel.

Elsewhere, Israeli tanks reoccupied the town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem; and two Palestinians and an Israeli border guard were killed in a gunfight on the old border north-east of Tel Aviv. Israel also evacuated 2,000 holidaymakers from a ski resort on Mount Hermon after Hizbollah shelled Israeli positions along the Lebanese border. Israeli warplanes hit back at the sources of fire. On the streets of Ramallah there was ample evidence of the force with which Israeli tanks and troops moved in on Friday. Five Palestinian policemen lay dead in a third-floor room of the Cairo-Amman Bank building, seized by Israeli troops on Friday and vacated yesterday.

Blood was spattered on the wall and there were bullet holes everywhere. Three of the dead were face down. Two appeared to have been shot in the head at close range, a third in the neck.

No one witnessed the confrontation, but Maher Shalabi, a Palestinian journalist who heads the Ramallah bureau of Dubai Television and who said he was used as a human shield by the Israeli soldiers as they combed the building, suspected from the way they were found that they had been executed.

According to the Israeli army spokesman, however, it was the Palestinians who opened fire from the building. "The IDF [Israeli Defence Force] entered the building," he said. "The Palestinian gunmen were in one of the rooms. They opened fire from the room on the IDF force. An exchange of fire from short range ensued. In the exchange, the Palestinian gunmen were killed and two IDF soldiers were moderately wounded."

When we approached Israeli soldiers at a gate to the Palestinian Authority compound and asked to look around for three minutes, a soldier replied. "Not even for one minute." A tank swivelled its gun to point at us.

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