Guerrilla leader taunts Israel after HQ hit by missile

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The Independent Online

Someone got the facts wrong. The headquarters of Marwan Barghouti, chief of the Tanzim militia and possible challenger to Yasser Arafat, was supposed to have been hit by an Israeli helicopter.

Someone got the facts wrong. The headquarters of Marwan Barghouti, chief of the Tanzim militia and possible challenger to Yasser Arafat, was supposed to have been hit by an Israeli helicopter.

Wasn't that what the news reports said - that it was hit by a rocket, along with a Fatah office in Nablus and a base in the Gaza Strip belonging to Mr Arafat's Force 17 bodyguard?

And yet there the man was, leader of thousands of young paramilitaries, sitting in his unscathed Fatah office in theWest Bank town of Ramallah. He grinned when asked about the rocket strike. "The Israelis are trying to say ... they bombed our headquarters, and - if this is OK for the Israeli people - well, let them say that."

Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, may have wanted his own worried citizens to believe his forces rocketed Mr Barghouti's headquarters as retaliation for Monday's killing of two Israelis - a settler found bound and stabbed and a security guard shot in the head.

The deaths outraged Israeli opinion, partly because they were shockingly brutal but also because they occurred within the place they consider their capital - one was in east Jerusalem, the other close to Gilo, on the city's edge.

But, though the Israeli helicopters hit their targets in Gaza and Nablus, they deliberately did not strike at the headquarters of the man whose militia the Israeli generals have vowed publicly to attack. Instead, they delivered a warning shot, blasting a missile into aFatah district office in the adjoining neighbourhood of el-Bireh, and firing two more into the house next door.

Both buildings had been evacuated moments earlier - apparently after a warning - so no one was hurt.

The intention was clear enough though. The Israeli military has been steadily applying pressure on the Palestinians, picking off rioters with snipers' bullets and M-16 fire.

Now it has widened the target, saying it will take the conflict to the people behind the intifada - Tanzim and Fatah members who have been shooting at Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers and whom Israel accuses of orchestrating the conflict with the help of Islamic fundamentalists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

For a man facing a well-equipped and ruthless army, Mr Barghouti was remarkably composed yesterday. He feltthe attacks on Monday night would achieve nothing. "There is no military solution to thisintifada. It won't be stopped by bombs and tanks and military machines ... There is one solution and it is a political solution ... an end to the occupation."

Mr Barghouti has a disingenuous habit of calling the present uprising a "peaceful" intifada - and says throwing firebombs and stones is a peaceful form of resistance against an occupying force.

He also refers to the thousands of rounds fired by Palestinian gunmen as "morale shooting", saying only a few people have been involved. Yet it is clear many rounds have been fired at Israeli positions and settlements in the past five weeks, albeit inaccurately.

But Mr Barghouti is a veteran of the struggle against Israel, who spent six years in Israeli prisons and who is seen by some as a possible successor to Mr Arafat. His words carry real weight on the streets. And in Ramallah yesterday no one seemed to disagree with him. "This attack is brutal and savage," said Ilham Sarsur, whose house was hit twice. "We will stand steadfast."

Her words were echoed by young Palestinians gathering near by at Ayosh Junction for another day of attacking Israeli troops. Hussein, 15, said: "Nothing they can do to us will stop this." Without provocation, an Israeli soldier fired a round that narrowly missed Hussein. The Tanzim may be the new target but the rioters remain in the crosshairs.