Israeli forces seize Arafat's office

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops took over Yasser Arafat's headquarters today and a senior Palestinian official said the Palestinian leader was confined to the middle floor in his three­story office building. It was Israel's opening shot in a large­scale military campaign in response to anti­Israeli attacks that killed 30 civilians in three days.

Israel TV has said Israeli forces planned to confine Arafat to several rooms in his headquarters. Palestinian officials said phone links to the building and electricity were cut off after nightfall Friday.

After declaring Arafat an "enemy", Israeli forces also seized the West Bank town of Ramallah, to which Arafat has been confined for four months. Five Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in fighting in Ramallah.

Throughout the day, Arafat spoke by phone to a dozen world leaders and demanded immediate international intervention. His aides said the situation was very volatile and that Arafat's life was in danger.

Arafat said he did not fear death and would not be cowed. "They want me under arrest or in exile or dead, but I am telling them, I prefer to be martyred," Arafat said in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel. "May God make us martyrs."

The compound is a jumble of several interconnected buildings spread over an area the size of a city block, surrounded by a high wall with three gates.

Israeli troops know every inch of Arafat's three story­office building – it was the Israeli military headquarters in Ramallah until Israel withdrew from the city in 1995. The ground floor has guard rooms, the first floor houses Arafat's office, dining room and sleeping quarters, and the third floor has more offices.

On Friday, two dozen tanks were deployed in the compound. Israeli snipers were deployed on rooftops. Tanks shelled Arafat's office building and the adjacent Palestinian intelligence headquarters which was severely damaged. Troops also stormed a nearby prison.

The violence appeared to doom the latest US truce mission, though US envoy Anthony Zinni was to remain in the region. Zinni spoke to Arafat by phone on Friday and met with Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat in the West Bank town of Jericho, Palestinian officials said.

The fighting came a day after an Arab summit in Beirut, Lebanon, approved a plan that calls on Arab nations to develop normal relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The plan marked the first time in more than a half­century of Mideast conflict that Arab states have made such an offer. Israel said it would study the plan, but that its top priority was responding to Palestinian attacks.

Also on Friday, Israeli police stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, firing stun grenades to disperse stone­throwing Muslim worshippers. The compound, the third holiest shrine of Islam, is revered by Jews as the site of their biblical Temple.

In response to the attacks, Israel's Cabinet met for an all­night session. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced Friday that Israel now considered Arafat an enemy and would completely isolate him. The Cabinet also approved a large­scale military operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the callup of thousands of reserve soldiers, the largest mobilization in a decade.

Sharon did not explain what branding Arafat an enemy would mean in practical terms, but left open the possibility that the Palestinian leader could be expelled from the Palestinian territories at a later time, as several Israeli Cabinet ministers have demanded.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben­Eliezer said that no Palestinian engaged in terror activity against Israel was immune from Israeli reprisals. Asked whether that also applied to Arafat, the defense minister said the Palestinian leader would not be harmed physically.

Ben­Eliezer said there was no intention to capture territory; rather, "to fight against the terrorist infrastructure."

Sharon, referring to Zinni's truce effort, said Israel was prepared to do everything it could for a ceasefire, "but all Israel got in return was terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism."

Arafat, in turn, accused Israel of scuttling peace efforts. "This brutal aggression is a response to the Arab summit in Beirut," Arafat told Abu Dhabi television. "This is the Israeli response to any peace attempt. Because they don't want peace, they don't want peace."

As the Cabinet met, tanks rolled into Ramallah, and soldiers exchanged fire with Palestinian gunmen. Four Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in the fighting. By nightfall, Israeli forces controlled the entire town and enforced a round­the­clock curfew, though small bands of gunmen still roamed the streets.