Missile blasts leave Arafat the master of nothing

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The Independent Online

He has sought for so long to rule the hills and deserts of the West Bank, from the Old City of Jerusalem to the Jordan Valley, from the wheat fields of Jenin to the northern tip of the Dead Sea. But Yasser Arafat was master of nothing.

He only had to walk a few hundred yards out of his West Bank headquarters to find himself staring down the barrel of an Israeli Merkava tank.

Concealed behind freshly dug barricades, the Israeli army was occupying the heart of Ramallah as the ex-general who now runs Israel, Ariel Sharon, tightened the squeeze on the Palestinian leader, and his crumbling Palestinian Authority. He was imprisoned, trapped in a few square miles.

The soldiers in the tank were enjoying themselves in the malicious manner that occupying armies often display. When we walked up, in the hope of talking to residents imprisoned in their homes by an Israeli curfew, they pointed the tank barrel directly at us, following our path for sport as if we were ducks in a fairground shooting range.

But Mr Arafat did not need to go even that short distance – a mere 400 yards down Irsal Street – to witness the meaning of Israel's new military offensive, launched by Mr Sharon in the guise of "war on terror" but which has more to do with a territorial conflict that has simmered away in this landscape , on and off, for more than three decades. It came to him.

Yesterday was grey, and unusually chilly. Ramallah – its entrance to neighbouring east Jerusalem now entirely sealed off by concrete barriers – was fretful and tense, knowing that it would soon be the subject of an Israeli retaliatory strike after the weekend atrocities committed by Hamas suicide bombers, who killed 25 Israelis, some of them teenagers.

The Gaza Strip and Jenin had been hit the night before. As the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority – now defined by the Israeli government as an "entity which supports terrorism" – Ramallah was bound to be next. Every few minutes, the town could hear the unnerving sound of Israeli F-16 jets, concealed above the low grey clouds.

At 11am, two Apache helicopters emerged through the cloud cover, and sent several missiles arcing into a police post next to Mr Arafat's compound.

He was sitting in his office, only 50 yards away, and must have felt the explosion. "He didn't react," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Information Minister who was among a group of officials with the Palestinian leader when the rockets struck.

The minister loyally added, with no small touch of bravado: "The president spent months under Israeli bombardment in Beirut. He is used to this." He neglected to mention that Mr Arafat was eventually driven out of Beirut.

The smoke was still wafting out of the gaping hole in the police post when we arrived, five minutes after the strike.

Soldiers from the presidential guard, Force 17 – also now defined as a "terrorist organisation" by Mr Sharon's government – were crowding around the wreckage, some eager to show off the detritus, others hostile and officious, bellowing at us to get out of the area. Amazingly, there were only a couple of injuries.

Not so in the Gaza Strip, where two Palestinians – one a security officer, the other a 15-year-old boy – were killed when F-16 jets fired missiles into an office of the Palestinian Preventive Security.

It was one of eight security installations – in Gaza, Tulkarm, Salfit and Ramallah – that had been hit by dusk in the fiercest Israeli air strikes since the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

Israeli officials insisted that Mr Arafat had not been the target of the attack close to his headquarters, pointing out – accurately enough – that they could have hit his office if had chosen to do so. It was meant as "a message".

"We have stated publicly that we do not intend to harm him personally," said one of Mr Sharon's advisers, Danny Ayalon. "But since he is responsible for the wave of terrorism which has been going on, we had to hit something close to him personally."

The same message had on Monday been delivered close to his beachside presidential headquarters in Gaza, where the Israeli air force destroyed or damaged his fleet of three Russian-made helicopters and – in the south of the strip – the army dug up the runway to the airport, used by Mr Arafat when he sets off on his frequent foreign trips. In reality, he has never been able to travel out of the occupied territories without Israel's permission, and he will have no problem commandeering more choppers. He usually flies into Ramallah in one of King Abdullah of Jordan's helicopters.

The real question is exactly what the "message" means. Is Mr Sharon merely applying the thumbscrews on Mr Arafat to get him to do the same on the Palestinians' militant paramilitary groups – an approach based on the doubtful assumption that jailing the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad will end attacks inside Israel? Certainly, this is Israel's publicly stated intention. Brigadier General Ron Kitrey, the Israeli army spokesman, said: "The purpose was to send a clear military message: 'Friends, we've had enough; take the responsibility that you have and stop the terrorism."

Or does Mr Sharon have a longer-term plan which involves dismantling the Oslo accords – which he has always opposed – consolidating control of the prime parts of the occupied territories, and creating the conditions which will eventually lead to the fall of Mr Arafat, ushering a non-celebrity and more compliant figure into his place?

The Palestinians had their own interpretation of the message yesterday. Mr Arafat, in a television interview shortly after the rocket strike, said: "The Israelis don't want me to succeed and for this he [Sharon] is escalating his military activities against our people, against our towns, against our cities, against our establishments.

"He doesn't want a peace process to start."