Published March 31, 2002
RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained penned up in his office Saturday, surrounded by Israeli troops and trying to keep up his staff's morale, aides and witnesses said.
In an interview from his West Bank compound in Ramallah with Fox News Channel's Rita Cosby Saturday evening, Arafat said, "We will never surrender."
Arafat said it was ridiculous for Israel to demand that he crack down on terrorist attacks and militant extremists given his current circumstances.
"This is clear ... how a person in complete seige haven't (sic) a telephone to speak or contact or give orders," he said. "This telephone which I'm speaking with you, I don't know when it will be cut."
When asked if Arafat feared for his life, he said the "problem is not my life, the problem is what our people are facing, what are (sic) our authority is facing, what the whole region is facing."
Arafat urged President Bush to intervene in the siege: "Please I hope for him to implement accurately and strongly the decisions which have been offered from his authority, from his government to the Security Council, for the withdrawal of the Israeli forces immediately and for the cease-fire and to attain back to the implemen[ta]tion of the George Mitchell understanding and the George Tenet understanding and the Mitchell report. And the peace talks."
In response to reports that Israeli troops would soon storm his remaining offices, Arafat said, "They [the Israelis] have declared it many times, we want Arafat dead or a prisoner, or to kick him outside of Palestine."
"I have one choice," he said. "To be one of the Palestinian martyrs."
Israel's military offensive, launched Friday to hunt down militants after a series of Palestinian attacks, will last as long as it takes "to guarantee the safety of our homes," Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Israeli television. Eleven Palestinians and two Israelis have been killed in the two days of fighting in Ramallah.
In a new attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded cafe in Tel Aviv's entertainment district Saturday evening, killing himself and wounding at least 32 people, including four who were in serious condition and one in critical condition, police and paramedics said. A militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement claimed responsibility.
Two other Palestinians heading into Israel to conduct a suicide attack got into a gunbattle with Israeli police at the edge of the West Bank. An Israeli officer and the two Palestinians were killed.
President Bush said Saturday that he respects Israel's right to defend itself and demanded that Arafat do more to stem violence.
"I can understand why the Israeli government takes the actions they take. Their country is under attack," Bush said. He said Arafat "can do a lot more" to prevent terrorist attacks.
"He's got a lot of people that listen to him still," Bush said. "He's got to make it absolutely clear that the Palestinian Authority does not support these terrorist activities."
The Palestinian news agency responded harshly on Sunday, criticizing U.S. Mideast envoy Anthony Zinni and warning Arab leaders they could be overthrown for failing to back the Palestinians.
Wafa, said Arafat "shocked the invader" by refusing to surrender, and complained that the United States and Arab leaders were harming the Palestinian cause.
In a statement signed by the political editor of the agency but giving no name, Wafa said the United States "is godfathering Israel." The agency also charged that Arab leaders were preventing their people from demonstrating against the United States and Israel. "When nations get fed up by their leaders, they will find the way to remove them," Wafa said.
Despite the harsh U.S. words for the Palestinians, Washington supported a U.N. Security Council resolution passed early Saturday that called on Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah.
European nations criticized Israel, calling on it to implement the resolution, while angry protests broke out in several Arab nations.
At the same time, Israel's tense northern border with Lebanon flared up. Hezbollah guerrillas fired rockets and mortar shells at Israeli outposts in a disputed border area, and Israeli warplanes responded with strikes on suspected Hezbollah positions in south Lebanon.
Israel is expected to broaden its offensive in Palestinian-controlled areas in coming days, and the military was in action on two other fronts Saturday.
Tanks rumbled into the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem and next to Bethlehem, where Christians are observing Easter weekend. Tanks also entered the town of Beituniya, outside Ramallah, surrounding the military compound of West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub. He said his men would resist an Israeli takeover.
In other military measures, Israeli forces entered Seida, a village near Jenin in the West Bank and killed two Palestinians, one of them an Islamic Jihad activist, villagers said. The Israeli military said Israeli soldiers returned fire from a building, killing two gunmen, and Israeli soldiers left the village after the operation.
Israeli tanks moved into the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla after gunmen there fired guns and a mortar shell at a Jewish neighborhood in a disputed part of Jerusalem claimed by both sides. Also, Israeli armored vehicles entered a Palestinian neighborhood of the city of Hebron after gunmen fired at houses in a Jewish enclave below, witnesses said.
In response to the U.N. resolution, Israel said it was forced to take military action "because the Palestinians are launching terrorism against our citizens, rather than eradicating terrorism and implementing a cease-fire." The government said it had no interest in remaining in Ramallah or any other Palestinian cities.
Israeli troops took control of the streets in Ramallah and seized the buildings in Arafat's sprawling government complex Friday, but remained just outside Arafat's three-story sandstone office.
However, on Saturday evening, Palestinian officials said Israel informed them that its forces would enter the office building later in the day to arrest wanted Palestinians they believe to be hiding there. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
For the time being, Arafat had use of all floors in the building, which from time to time came under heavy Israeli machine gun fire, said Adam Shapiro, an American volunteer medic who spent 24 hours in the compound, leaving late Saturday.
Shapiro, 30, of New York City, said there was no electricity and water, and that food and medical supplies were running low. He said he had a simple breakfast of bread and cheese with Arafat and several of his aides, and that the Palestinian leader was trying to keep up the morale of those around him.
Israeli officials said they did not intentionally cut off utilities. The army said it permitted Palestinian repairmen to enter the compound to restore power and electricity. It said Arafat received supplies, including 1,000 pitas, 20 bottles of water, cheese, eggs, flashlights, candles and canned meat.
In a phone call to Arafat, described by U.S. officials as stern, Secretary of State Colin Powell blamed Palestinian attacks for scuttling peace efforts.
In a public appearance, Powell said, "Let's be clear about what brought it all to a halt: terrorism." State Department officials said his message to Arafat was essentially the same.
During the 30-minute talk, Arafat urged the United States to take "action in order to end the Israeli offensive and occupation of the Palestinian towns and cities," according to Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh, quoted by the Palestinian Wafa news agency.
Powell also spoke to Sharon, but details of the conversation were not immediately available.
Israel declared Arafat an "enemy" and said he would be completely isolated.
In 18 months of fighting 1,258 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 401 on the Israeli side.
Israeli forces in Ramallah fired rockets at a high-rise building, forcing 15 Palestinian gunmen inside to surrender. Several of the gunmen were taken out injured and put in an armored Israeli medical vehicle.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli forces moving through the streets of Ramallah with loudspeakers demanded that all males between the ages of 14 and 40 come out of their homes and report to a school. More than 500 Palestinian men assembled in the yard and were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs. Some were being put on a truck and driven away. The army chased away journalists who arrived at the scene.
The military said it has arrested a total of 145 suspected Palestinian militants during the two-day operation, including more than 60 who were detained Friday in Arafat's compound. It denied carrying out mass detentions despite multiple witness accounts by journalists. In previous raids of West Bank towns, Israeli troops rounded up more than 1,000 Palestinians in a similar fashion.
Fox News' Andrew Hard and The Associated Press contributed to this report.