RAMALLAH, West Bank – An angry Yasser Arafat warned on Wednesday that his continued confinement by Israeli troops would hurt stability and peace in the Middle East and demanded the United States help end the Israeli siege of his offices.
The Palestinian leader vented his rage to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell at the Ramallah compound that Israeli troops took over March 28, effectively imprisoning Arafat in his office building.
"I have to ask the whole international world, I have to ask excellency President Bush, I have to ask the United Nations . . . is this acceptable that I can't go outside the door?" said Arafat, visibly agitated.
"Is this acceptable, for how long, you think, do you think this will not reflect on the whole stability and peace in the Middle East?" he said.
Arafat accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of pursuing his offensive in the West Bank after promising to pull back.
"They are continuing their aggression against the Palestinian people," he said in a darkened hallway of his battered headquarters after seeing Powell off.
Powell, winding down a 10-day peace mission that has produced few results, held a news conference in Jerusalem before heading for home via Cairo, Egypt.
"Cease-fire is not a relevant term at the moment," Powell said, adding that conditions may allow for that later "so one can have not just the statement of a cease-fire but the reality."
Powell said that while the Israeli pullback "wasn't as quickly as we would have liked, it is under way."
The secretary of state said he made it clear to Arafat that the world is looking for him to move beyond condemnations of terrorism and take action against militants and suicide bombers who attack Israelis.
"It's time for him to make a strategic choice and lead his people down the path of peace," said Powell, who refused to say whether he personally believed the Palestinian leader was ready to take action.
Arafat was unable to leave the building to escort Powell to his car after their meeting. Israeli soldiers peered through half-opened windows and listened to Arafat speaking as Powell drove away from the litter-strewn compound.
It was the second time Powell traveled to Arafat's headquarters, despite objections from Sharon, who said it would be a "tragic mistake" to break Arafat's isolation.
Arafat also denounced Israel's siege of the holy Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Israeli troops have surrounded about 200 armed Palestinians who took refuge inside the shrine. Heavy shooting erupted around the church briefly Tuesday night.
Calling the siege "shameful," Arafat asked, "Who can accept it internationally? Who can accept this against these very holy sacred places?"
Regarding his talks with Powell, Arafat said the two had "very important discussions and I have to thank him for what he has done and what he is going to do." But the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera quoted Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo as saying "the Powell-Arafat meeting was catastrophic."
Prior to Powell's arrival for the meeting with Arafat, top Arafat adviser Saeb Erekat expressed disappointment that Powell had not been able to engineer a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
"The situation is very grave," he said. "I don't know if we have a Palestinian Authority anymore." Notwithstanding U.S. calls a week ago for a total military pullback, he said, Israel "is deepening the occupation. The situation is worse than it was seven days ago."
Arafat pointedly condemned Israel's actions in Bethlehem, saying they they had made a "shameful attack" on the Church of the Nativity,
"Who can accept this against this very holy sacred place?" he asked.
Inside Arafat's headquarters, guards reported that conditions had improved somewhat since Powell's first visit on Sunday. They said Israel had turned up the water pressure, permitted more electricity to flow and allowed limited deliveries of food, bottled water and medical supplies.
Still, Makmoud Issa, in charge of Arafat's security force, said that conditions in "jail would be better."
"We've been surrounded by the Israelis for 20 days and we can't move," he said.
As Powell and Arafat talked, an Israeli soldier briefly waved his country's flag from the window of a building that troops have occupied adjacent to Arafat's headquarters, countering a Palestinian flag suspended from the windows of the besieged compound. It was Israel's Independence Day.
Israeli troops continued their operation in a Palestinian village inside Jerusalem's expanded city limits, removing residents from their homes and making arrests, witnesses said. Israeli forces had moved into a West Bank town and three villages near Jerusalem on Tuesday and imposed curfews as part of a high-security alert timed to Independence Day.
Palestinians condemned the new incursions, but Powell has tempered his public calls for a total and quick pullout now that Sharon has announced a pullout from all but Ramallah and Bethlehem.
In any event, Israeli officials said the withdrawal would not preclude efforts to arrest Fuad Shobaki, whom they accused of overseeing attacks on Israel and the abortive shipment of 50 tons of Iranian weapons to the Palestinians.
And, the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they remained determined to arrest the plotters of the assassination last October of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.