Missile strikes turn up the heat on Arafat

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The Independent Online

After confining Yasser Arafat to Ramallah with tanks in the streets and a blow-out of his helicopters, Israel tightened the thumbscrews on the Palestinian leader still further yesterday with missile strikes in the southern Gaza Strip.

Only hours after the US brokered a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian security officials – described as "constructive" by the Americans – Israeli helicopters sent missiles smashing into offices belonging to Mr Arafat's intelligence services and Force 17 bodyguard unit at Rafah, near the Egyptian border.

It was a signal that Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, remains unmoved by Mr Arafat's insistence that he is making a "100 per cent" effort to clamp down on militancy – a view he outlined in a rare interview on Israeli TV.

On this programme, Mr Arafat repeated his claim to have arrested 17 people on an Israeli list of 33 militants supplied by the US envoy, former Marines' general Anthony Zinni. When the Israeli interviewer suggested the Americans regarded the arrests as a sham, Mr Arafat got agitated and began a diatribe about no pressure being put on Israel to punish soldiers who have killed or maimed thousands of unarmed Arab civilians, or violent Jewish settlers.

"Who cares about the Americans?" said an annoyed Mr Arafat. "The Americans are on your side and they gave you everything. Who gave you the planes? ... Who gave you the tanks? ... Who gave you all the money?"

The Palestinian and Israeli accounts of Friday night's security meeting differ from the US version. A Palestinian official told the news agency Reuters there was almost a brawl. "They were very difficult talks, and the Israelis were trying to dictate and give us orders. There was almost a fist fight and we were shouting at each other."

An Israeli official, who also described the meeting as "difficult", said Israeli security chiefs rejected a Palestinian request that they ease the pressure on the occupied territories until Mr Arafat had clamped down on militants.

The latest Israeli assault followed Friday's pre-dawn bombing raid by F-16 jets on a police compound in Gaza City, which injured several dozen residents. The armed forces also killed two Palestinians near Adick village on the West Bank on Friday night. Palestinian officials said that it was another Israeli assassination.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in yesterday's attack on Rafah. Reportedly, the security forces' compound was evacuated before the attack, the latest Israeli retaliation after Palestinian suicide bombers killed 25 people in Israel last week. Witnesses said that three helicopters fired at least five missiles. "This is a war against the Palestinian people, an unfair war," said one Palestinian, adding that the attack was "against efforts of peace the Americans and the rest of the world are trying to achieve".