RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli troops backed by tanks swarmed into Yasser Arafat's headquarters Friday, punching holes in walls and fighting room to room as the Palestinian leader huddled in a windowless office and made frantic appeals to world leaders by cell phone.
Early Saturday morning, Israeli tanks also rumbled into a Palestinian town adjoining biblical Bethlehem where Christians are observing Easter weekend, but did not enter Bethlehem itself, Palestinians said.
Five Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed as Israeli forces took over the West Bank city of Ramallah and Arafat's sprawling compound, where 25 Palestinians were wounded and 60 detained.
In a Palestinian attack in Jerusalem, an 18-year-old woman blew herself up at the entrance of a supermarket, killing herself and two Israelis. The Al-Aqsa Brigades, a militia close to Arafat's Fatah movement, said it sent the bomber.
The Ramallah operation was described by Israeli officials as the first stage of a much larger assault aimed at destroying the "terrorist infrastructure" that Israelis blame for the hundreds of deaths they have suffered in 18 months of relentless violence. More than a thousand Palestinians also have died.
Israel said it had no plans to kill Arafat but wanted to isolate him. He scoffed at the assurance.
"They were shelling us continuously in the last 24 hours," Arafat said in a telephone interview with CNN, during which machine-gun fire could be heard in the background.
"They are using all the American weapons against us," he added. The United States supplies Israel with the bulk of its military hardware.
Throughout the day, Israeli tanks shelled buildings in the compound and soldiers entered buildings and traded fire with Palestinians. By nightfall, Arafat was trapped in his three-story office building, which was plunged into darkness when soldiers cut off electricity and destroyed a generator.
The boxed in leader followed events on television, giving phone interviews to TV channels and speaking by cell phone to more than a dozen world leaders. Arafat pleaded for immediate help, but was not given real promises, one of his aides said.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session Friday to consider the upsurge in violence. An Arab group demanded in a resolution a Mideast cease-fire and that Israel withdraw troops from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah.
Secretary of State Colin Powell held a half hour conversation with Arafat during which he delivered a stern message to curtail terrorism, U.S. officials said.
The Palestinians said Arafat also spoke several other leaders, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Arab League leader Amr Moussa, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the heads of various African nations.
A submachine gun placed on the table in front of him, Arafat was defiant. "They want me under arrest or in exile or dead, but I am telling them, I prefer to be martyred," he said in a telephone interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel. "May God make us martyrs."
In yet another interview, with Jordanian state-run television, Arafat described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "bloodthirsty" and bent on "blowing up" a collective Arab peace initiative endorsed Thursday. He added that the United States "could have ordered him (Sharon) to end the attacks. Why are they quiet despite all that is taking place?"
In Washington, Powell said Sharon had told the United States that Arafat would not be harmed. Powell urged the Israeli prime minister to use restraint and consider the consequences of escalation. But he added: "Let's be clear about what brought it all to a halt — terrorism."
During the Security Council meeting, Deputy U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham warned that Arafat should not be harmed.
"Chairman Arafat is the leader of the Palestinian people. His leadership is now, and will be, central to any meaningful effort to restore calm," Cunningham said.
Despite the violence, U.S. truce envoy Anthony Zinni continued his mission, meeting with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Friday and speaking to Arafat by phone.
Erekat said Israel's "endgame is to kill Arafat," an accusation that Sharon spokesman Ranaan Gissin dismissed as "nonsense."
The latest escalation began with a suicide bombing Wednesday in an Israeli hotel banquet hall that killed 22 diners during a Passover Seder, the ritual meal at the start of the weeklong Jewish holiday. It was followed by attacks on two Jewish settlements Thursday and Friday that killed six Israelis.
On Friday morning, after an all-night session, Sharon's Cabinet declared Arafat an "enemy" and said the Palestinian leader would be completely isolated. Israel began calling up reserve soldiers, and the mobilization was expected to reach 20,000 troops, the largest in a decade.
Hours later, Israeli troops and two dozen tanks swarmed into Arafat's walled compound — an area the size of a city block with a jumble of several interconnected buildings, surrounded by a high wall with three gates.
Israeli troops know every inch of Arafat's three story-office building — it was the Israeli military headquarters in Ramallah until Israel withdrew from the city in 1995. The bottom floor has guard rooms, the middle floor houses Arafat's office, dining room and sleeping quarters, and the top has more offices.
In Friday's assault, heavy tank and gunfire hit the building's first and third floors, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said — the first time Israel directly targeted the building. Israeli snipers took positions on rooftops, and tanks shelled the intelligence headquarters in the complex.
Israeli troops broke into structures adjacent to Arafat's offices and punched holes in walls, moving room to room toward his building. At one point, they broke through a wall into the office building itself and traded fire with Palestinians through the hole, the Palestinians said.
But the military said its soldiers did not enter the building. Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, commander of Israeli troops in the West Bank, said troops were in control of the whole compound except Arafat's offices. He said large amounts of weapons were found and about 60 people were detained. Abed Rabbo told CNN those detained were unarmed, mostly secretaries and drivers.
Palestinian security officials in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, which borders Bethlehem, said an Israeli armored column entered early Saturday morning but did not immediately move on to Bethlehem itself.
An army statement said troops took up positions in Beit Jala after Palestinians there shot at the nearby Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, which lies in a disputed part of Jerusalem claimed by both sides. The military said shots were also fired at Israeli troops driving on a road in a valley below Beit Jala.
The statement said soldiers also entered Palestinian territory near the West Bank town of Nablus and arrested a suspected militant from the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Earlier this month, the Israeli military carried out an extensive operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, sending 20,000 soldiers into towns, villages and refugee camps in a hunt for Palestinian militants. That operation was the biggest since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Zinni, the U.S. envoy, had reported some progress toward a cease-fire this week. Israel had accepted Zinni's timetable for implementing a truce with some reservations, while the Palestinians sought more clarifications.
Thursday evening, with Israeli retaliation for the Passover bombing already imminent, Arafat said he was ready to immediately implement the U.S. truce plan without conditions. But he stopped short of formally declaring a cease-fire.
Sharon later said Israel had sought a cease-fire but only received "terrorism, terrorism and more terrorism."