RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli troops pulled out of the West Bank town of Ramallah on Wednesday, witnesses said, ending a two-day blockade of Yasser Arafat's headquarters.
The pullout came as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was returning home after telling U.S. and British leaders that Arafat is not stopping attacks.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell took a different line from President Bush and Sharon, saying negotiators must "work with" Arafat. Powell said the United States is consulting other nations about setting up a provisional Palestinian state.
Palestinian leaders, unhappy with Bush's endorsement of Sharon's positions, warned it may embolden Sharon to take even tougher action against the weakened Palestinian Authority.
After sundown Wednesday, Israeli tanks rolled away from the walls surrounding Arafat's city-block-sized headquarters compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah and pulled out of the city, witnesses said. The withdrawal was complete but the troops were still surrounding the city, said a military source, speaking on condition of anoynymity.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment. The Israeli forces had moved into position early Monday, cutting off the entrances to the compound but not entering.
The Israelis said their object this time was to prevent gunmen from taking refuge in the compound. During Israel's 34-day siege of Arafat's office that ended at the beginning of May, several hundred Palestinians were trapped inside with Arafat, including many armed men.
Palestinian police and security officers celebrated in the compound as the Israelis pulled away, chanting slogans in support of Arafat.
Last week, responding to a Palestinian homicide bombing that killed 17 Israelis, tanks and bulldozers broke through the outside wall and destroyed three buildings, including Palestinian intelligence headquarters.
During the two-day operation in Ramallah, soldiers arrested about 50 Palestinians, uncovered a bomb laboratory and found two car bombs ready for use, the military said.
In Washington, the White House played down Powell's remarks about setting up a provisional Palestinian state, saying he was repeating advice he had heard from other leaders.
Bush has come out in favor of an independent state for the Palestinians. But in his criticism of Arafat's leadership, Bush said the time was not right for peace talks that would result in such a state, a stand similar to Sharon's.
Top Arafat aides have criticized the strong support Bush and congressional leaders gave Sharon during his Washington visit Monday and Tuesday.
In London on Wednesday, Sharon briefed British Prime Minister Tony Blair on his talks with Bush, and Blair stressed the importance of an early restart of political talks, stressing his determination to do all he could to help, Blair's office said.
"This American approval is very dangerous," said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. "It shows that President Bush supports the toppling of the Palestinian Authority."
West Bank security commander Jibril Rajoub said, "I think Mr. Bush made a critical mistake by supporting this crazy prime minister whose policy is endangering the interests of the United States in the Middle East."
Meanwhile, a majority of Palestinians hope the current round of Mideast fighting will lead not just to a Palestinian state, but to the destruction of Israel, a poll found.
Fifty-one percent of those surveyed believe the Palestinian goal of the conflict is to "liberate all of historic Palestine," a reference to all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including Israel. In December, 44 percent held that view, according to the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, a Palestinian think tank.
The poll also found a large majority of Palestinians still support the ongoing fighting, though the numbers have dropped somewhat, from 84 percent in March to 79 percent now.
Palestinian backing for homicide bombings was also strong but down slightly, from 74 percent in December to 68 percent today.
The survey, released Tuesday, questioned 1,170 Palestinians and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
The region was mostly calm on Wednesday, following widespread violence a day earlier that left 11 Palestinians and one Israeli dead.
The Palestinian dead included 9-year-old Palestinian Hussein Mitwi, who was hit by a bullet in his home in the Gaza Strip in what his mother said was unprovoked Israeli shooting. An Israeli army watchtower is about 200 yards from the home. The army said it was not aware of any such shooting.
Also, a Palestinian homicide bomber struck Tuesday night north of Tel Aviv, killing a 15-year-old Israeli girl. It was the 68th homicide bombing since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in September 2000. Late Wednesday, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade issued a leaflet claiming responsibility. The militia, linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, named the bomber as Omar Ziada, 30, from Madama village near Nablus.
The Palestinian leadership issued a statement denouncing the attack and saying "it gives Israel a reason to attack the Palestinian people."