RAMALLAH, West Bank – It remains to be seen whether Israel dealt a serious blow to what it termed the "terrorist infrastructure" in the West Bank, but the Palestinian governmental infrastructure built over the years by Yasser Arafat clearly has been battered — ministries are ransacked, files and computer disks missing, office equipment wrecked.
In Ramallah, the Palestinians' de facto capital from which Israeli troops made a partial withdrawal Sunday, officials are seething with anger over the destruction of their work over the past seven years to put together a structure to run what they hoped would be a Palestinian state.
What had been the Palestinian Authority apparatus was built largely with donors' money. The leaders say it will take months and millions of dollars to repair the damage. Many believe the destruction was an intentional effort to undermine their state-in-the-making.
"To rebuild what they've destroyed and replace what they've seized will require a super effort and a long period of time," said Ahmed Qureia, Palestinian parliament speaker and one of the main architects of the 1993 Israel-Palestinian peace pact known as the Oslo accords.
He estimated the total cost of rebuilding in Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank at close to $500 million. However, other Palestinian officials assigned to assess the damage say it's too early to put a figure on the destruction.
Israel says it launched its "Operation Defensive Shield" on March 29 to rout Palestinian militants only after truce efforts repeatedly failed and Palestinian suicide bombings and shooting attacks killed scores of Israeli civilians.
Israeli officials claimed to have found documents during raids on civilian offices proving the Palestinian Authority was involved in the terrorism. Another goal was apparently to uncover what the Israelis termed "incitement" to violence against them.
"The troops had explicit orders to avoid unnecessary damage," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "If unnecessary damage was caused it will be investigated. But bear in mind that as soon as we pull out the Palestinians move in to fix up the show for the TV cameras."
Besides Ramallah, Israel on Sunday pulled out from Nablus, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the current stage of the campaign had been completed.
A tour of four ministries — education, environment, supplies and higher education — in Ramallah immediately after Israel's withdrawal Sunday revealed extensive and, in some cases, selective damage to the government infrastructure.
Throughout the West Bank, facilities used by about 10 Palestinian security and intelligence units lay in ruins from Israeli attacks or abandoned for fear of fresh ones. Many, if not most, of their personnel are either in hiding or in detention, raising serious questions about how the Palestinian Authority could maintain law and order among the West Bank's estimated 2 million inhabitants.
Speaking after a visit last week to the town of Jenin, scene of the worst fighting in Israel's West Bank campaign, U.N. Special Envoy Terje-Larsen said "the infrastructure of the Palestinian security forces — their powers, their outposts, etc. — is destroyed. There are no policemen left."
There are also fears about delays in restoring garbage disposal and medical services, raising the prospect of outbreaks of disease.
In the four ministries visited Sunday, and in the Bureau of Statistics, floors in most offices were littered with debris — stationery, damaged computer monitors, hard disks, glass, check books, invoices and posters, including some of Arafat and the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest shrines.
In offices where explosives had been used to open safes or doors, light fixtures and electrical wires dangled from ceilings, chairs and desks were overturned.
Mohammed Habes, head of the Department of Precious Metals, part of the Ministry of Supplies, said he watched from his nearby home as the soldiers arrived April 13 at the five-story building that houses the ministry and the civil service headquarters.
"They left soon afterward and came back later, when a big explosion was heard," he said.
In some cases, like in the education ministry, the soldiers took so much material they needed a truck to carry it away, according to witnesses.
"The money donated [by] donor countries was not used to educate young Palestinians for peace — it was used to incite them to hatred with the aim of producing suicide attackers," said Gissin. "We had to gather this material for the purpose of exposing the extent and the virulent nature of the incitement."
The education ministry was visited twice by troops — on April 4 and 14. Their first visit, during which five explosives were used, lasted eight hours, according to acting education minister Naim Abu Homos and Salah Sobani, a ministry employee who had stayed with two colleagues at the ministry compound throughout Israel's occupation.
"I opened all the doors I had keys for and they blasted open the rest," recalled Sobani. "They kept us outside the building but gave us advance warning before every blast so we could protect our ears." Sobani looked haggard but sounded eager to talk to visitors after more than three weeks in the company of just two other people.
The extensive damage to the Palestinian Authority's security infrastructure included the building near Ramallah housing "Preventive Security" — the body in charge of internal security — that was badly damaged by Israeli shelling.
"In my opinion, an attack of this sort on the Preventive Security Service reflects a desire to destroy the infrastructure of which Preventive Security is the backbone," West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub said in remarks broadcast on Israel TV.
Preventive Security used to work with similar Israeli agencies and the CIA in the hunt for Palestinian militants.
In Nablus, the West Bank's largest town, the Israeli army badly damaged the local government compound, which includes buildings used by security, and soldiers confiscated light arms belonging to the police. Facilities used by Palestinian security in Tulkaram and Qalqilya had been badly damaged by Israeli shelling before the current offensive.
Much like in Nablus, the local government compound in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, which includes security facilities, had been shelled and no longer is in use.