Aides Celebrate as Arafat Fumes

Yasser Arafat's supporters screamed in joy and hugged and kissed each other after Israel lifted its monthlong siege of his compound Wednesday. Departing Israeli soldiers waved from atop their armored troop carriers.

After midnight, when the last Israeli was gone, a confrontation that transfixed the world and stood at the center of a spasm of Mideast violence was finally over — for now.

Those scenes of joy quickly turned to images of anger as Arafat faced television cameras and lashed out at Israel, blaming it for a short-lived fire at the Church of the Nativity compound.

Speaking to reporters at his office minutes after Israeli tanks lifted their siege of his Ramallah headquarters, Arafat shook with anger and pounded the table with his fist, calling Israelis "terrorists, Nazis and racists."

"It's an ugly crime," Arafat said of the fire. "I call on the international community to take immediate measures in the face of this horrendous crime. Those terrorists, Nazis and racists, how can we tolerate them after committing this crime?"

"Go away, all of you. Go and tell the world about this crime. don't talk to me," the Palestinian leader said to reporters before he was whisked away by his aides, who then asked the journalists to leave.

The fire burned for half an hour at the besieged Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest shrines, during an exchange of gunfire, with Israeli soldiers firing flares and throwing smoke bombs, according to witnesses.

There was no apparent damage to the church, but the damage to the compound wasn't immediately clear.

Arafat had been confined to Ramallah since December, and his appearance contrasted sharply with the mood of about 300 Palestinians who had been holed up with him for more than a month.

The Israelis left under a U.S.-brokered deal to move six wanted Palestinians from Arafat's office to a jail in the West Bank town of Jericho, guarded by American and British wardens.

Many of the Palestinians hugged and kissed each other and made calls to their relatives assuring them of their safety. Most had grown beards and, like Arafat, looked haggard.

They waved Palestinian flags and chanted loyalty to Arafat. Several hundred residents from Ramallah came to the compound to share in the jubilation.

Shortly after the Israelis left, three wounded Palestinians were taken from the headquarters to waiting ambulances. One of the men was carried out on a stretcher and flashed a "V" for victory sign with his fingers, as 700 Palestinians gathered in the courtyard cheered him. The other two men hobbled out.

Except for the few rooms where Arafat and his men were confined, the Palestinian leader's compound resembled a battlefield. Mounds of sand were scattered about. Sandbags brought by the Israeli troops filled windows of buildings facing the one used by Arafat and his men. Several burned or crushed cars littered the courtyard.

The wreckage is one of the smaller problems Arafat faces, now that he is free to leave the West Bank for the first time since Israel first besieged his compound in December, demanding that he put an end to suicide bombings on Israeli streets.

The Israeli assault left his security forces in tatters, but the United States demands that he crack down on militants, while his people clamor for revenge against the Israelis.

However, Arafat's popularity surged during his confinement, as people saw him as a symbol of their own hardship under the tough restrictions Israel has imposed during 19 months of fighting.

Arafat's men spoke of surviving on one or two meager meals a day, mostly bread and cheese, and of intermittent water shortages. Most, they said, slept on the floor. They complained that Israel jammed their cellular phones.

Mohammed Youssef Tamimi was an unlikely prisoner in the Arafat's compound. The 15-year-old ninth grader accompanied his father, who was visiting the compound on business when the siege began. He ended up staying 34 days.

"I was afraid on the first day," the boy said, "but President Arafat himself lifted my morale and told me not to worry."