Arafat trapped in compound as tank shells rain down

Israelis insist a show of force is intended to isolate not kill the Palestinian leader

Justin Huggler
Saturday 21 September 2002 00:00 BST

Yasser Arafat was under siege last night. An Israeli tank shell was fired into the building where the Palestinian leader is trapped, according to reports. It hit the floor above the office where Mr Arafat is holed up. He was unharmed, aides said. But around him, the Israeli army was demolishing his presidential compound brick by brick.

At one point yesterday, Mr Arafat pulled a gun and tried to run to fight back against the Israelis, according to a Palestinian minister. He was apparently restrained by his bodyguards. In the afternoon, great clouds of dust hung over Ramallah as the Israeli army blew up several buildings. Last night, huge military bulldozers were smashing up the building next to Mr Arafat's. Red sparks flew from it as Israeli heavy machine-guns fired constantly.

The Israeli army demolished a bridge linking Mr Arafat's block to another and Palestinian officials said they feared the building could collapse.

The White House called on Israel to show restraint. A fresh crisis here is the last thing the Bush administration wants when it is trying to get Arab governments' support for an attack on Iraq.

The scenes at Mr Arafat's compound yesterday were the Israeli government's response to the return of suicide bombing, after six weeks without a serious militant attack in Israel.

The death yesterday of a young Jewish man from Scotland, Yoni Jesner, who was studying at a Jewish religious school, brought the death toll from Thursday's bus bombing in Tel Aviv to six. An Israeli policeman was killed in an earlier bombing on Wednesday.

"Israel has the right to defend itself and to deal with security but Israel also has a need to bear in mind the consequences of action and Israel's stake in development of reforms in the Palestinian institutions," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. Colin Powell also had to take a call from an anxious Saudi Foreign Minister.

There was a sense of déjà vu yesterday. The Israeli army has surrounded Mr Arafat's compound before, trapping him inside without water or electricity. They have already smashed up his fleet of cars, crushing them together into crude ramparts. This time, they were going further, destroying almost every building but the one Mr Arafat was in.

At an emergency cabinet meeting late on Thursday night, the option of expelling Mr Arafat from the West Bank was apparently raised. Ariel Sharon is believed to support the idea. But his coalition partners are said to feel such a decision would damage Israel. Benjamin Ben Eliezer, the Defence Minister, said yesterday: "We have no intention of expelling him or firing at him. We want to isolate him."

Israeli officials were still insisting Mr Arafat would not be harmed last night, despite the reports of a tank shell fired at his building. Publicly, Israeli officials say they are trying to force some 20 wanted militants inside the building to surrender. Nabil abu Rdeieneh, a senior adviser to Mr Arafat who was inside the building, said last night there are no wanted militants inside, and called the Israeli demands a "pretext" to destroy the building. "The Israelis will pay a heavy price for this," he said, adding that there were many injured inside the building.

There is some speculation here that Mr Sharon's government's policy may be to try to force Mr Arafat to go into exile voluntarily, by putting so much pressure on him in Ramallah. But Mr Sharon offered Mr Arafat the chance to go into exile in April ­ and was refused.

After six weeks without a suicide bombing, many Israelis had begun to believe Mr Sharon's policy of reoccupying West Bank towns and putting Palestinians under near constant curfew was working. Now that feeling has evaporated and it was clear the Israeli government needed to try something new. But yesterday's policy was a variation on a familiar theme.

The focus of Israel's repsonse was, as ever, Mr Arafat. But responsibility for this week's two suicide bombings was claimed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two major Islamist Palestinian militant groups, and Mr Arafat is believed to have little power or influence to rein in either of them from their continued violence.

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