RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli forces blew up three buildings in Yasser Arafat's headquarters and shelled his master bedroom on Thursday, in what Israel said was part of a series of reprisals for the killing of 17 Israelis in a car bomb attack.
The fiery attack, in which an 18-year-old suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden car alongside an Israeli bus and blew it up, led to two Israeli incursions and a promise of more — a cycle that threatened to torpedo renewed international efforts to put an end to more than 20 months of Mideast violence.
Early Friday, Israeli forces patrolled along the southern edge of Bethlehem early Friday but did not enter the town, the military said.
In contrast to a monthlong siege that ended May 2, Thursday's incursion into Arafat's office compound in Ramallah lasted only a few hours. Israeli tanks and giant bulldozers smashed a huge hole in the outside wall of the city-block-size compound and destroyed three buildings inside, including the military intelligence headquarters.
An Israeli shell or rocket crashed into Arafat's sleeping quarters, about five feet from his bed — prompting Arafat to accuse the Israelis of trying to kill him.
Pointing to his dust-covered bed, broken bedroom mirror and shattered bathroom tiles, Arafat said: "I was supposed to sleep here last night, but I had some work downstairs. Of course (the Israelis) knew where I was. Everybody knows this is my bedroom."
An Israeli army spokesman, Capt. Jacob Dallal, denied Arafat was the target. "If there had been any intention of harming Arafat, it would not have been a problem," Dallal said.
At the United Nations, the Palestinians demanded international condemnation of the Israeli attack and immediate Security Council intervention to end such incursions. The letter from Nasser Al-Kidwa, the Palestinian U.N. observer, made no mention of the suicide bombing.
Also Thursday, Israeli forces entered Beituniya, a suburb of Ramallah, and arrested six men, including a suspected leader of the radical Islamic group Hamas. Palestinians and Israeli forces exchanged fire during the brief incursion.
Israeli forces left Nablus after a weeklong operation to arrest suspected terrorists and confiscate weapons and explosives.
An Israeli motorist was killed in a shooting in the West Bank on Thursday, a hospital official said. He was identified as an 18-year-old high school student from the Jewish settlement of Ofra, between Ramallah and Nablus.
After the bombing Wednesday, Israeli forces briefly entered Jenin, where the teen-age bomber, Hamza Samudi, came from. The extremist Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.
Islamic Jihad said Samudi learned to drive just four days before the attack, with his handlers giving him a few pointers on where to find the brake, the clutch and the gearshift. On the day before the attack, Samudi took his elderly father for a spin in the stolen car given to him by Islamic Jihad, neighbors said.
The Palestinian Authority, headed by Arafat, denounced the bombing and ordered the arrest of Islamic Jihad activists. Even so, the group's leader, Abdullah Shami, remained at his home in Gaza, apparently unconcerned.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed Arafat. "This is a cruel, merciless war, a war being waged against us by the Palestinian Authority and its leader, who have one central aim — to break Israel's power to resist," Sharon said.
After the bus bombing, the deadliest attack since Israel's six-week incursion into the West Bank ended May 2, Sharon delayed his departure for the United States, canceling weekend meetings in New York. He is scheduled to meet President Bush on Monday.
The Bush administration sent two high-level officials to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the past week and appeared to be gearing up for a new Mideast diplomatic offensive, but the resurgence of violence might slow or stop the effort.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the United States is working on a formula under which Israel would evacuate all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while the Palestinians would give up their demand for all refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their original homes in Israel. Administration officials would not comment directly, saying that many ideas are being floated.
After the bombing, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, in the administration's harshest criticism of the Palestinian leader, said, "in the president's eyes, Yasser Arafat has never played a role of someone who could be trusted or who was effective."
After the raid on Arafat's compound early Thursday, the Israeli military issued a statement holding Arafat responsible for "a wave of Palestinian terrorism that has swept the state of Israel" and pledged military operations aimed at rooting it out.
However, the almost nightly raids on Palestinian areas were not enough for many Israelis, including some Cabinet ministers who clamored for Israel to expel Arafat.
Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, from Sharon's Likud party, told Israel TV that soon a majority of Israel's Cabinet will support expelling Arafat. "When I first proposed it, they thought I was eccentric," he said.
Israeli newspapers carried front-page pictures of the charred, twisted remains of the bus and snapshots of the victims, most of them young soldiers. In an editorial, the mass-circulation Maariv wrote that the bus bombing "needs to bring us very close to a decision to rid the region of Arafat's presence."
However, Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said that for now, Arafat's ouster was not being contemplated. "His expulsion would not solve the problem. The security services do not recommend this as the most effective solution," he said.
Arafat dismissed the expulsion threat, talking to reporters after taking them on a tour of his damaged headquarters. "Expel me?" he laughed. "I will die here."