RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli forces pulled out of the West Bank town of Ramallah, lifting their latest blockade on Yasser Arafat's office, as Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the idea of a provisional Palestinian state.
Palestinian police and security officers ran into Arafat's battered compound and celebrated, chanting slogans in support of the Palestinian leader, as Israeli tanks rolled away from the city-block-sized complex late Wednesday. Early Thursday, Israeli forces raided a village near the West Bank city of Jenin, another of the nearly daily raids made into Palestinian areas.
With the Israeli forces out of Ramallah, the new Palestinian Cabinet was to convene for the first time Thursday evening at the headquarters, said Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh.
The meeting had been set for Monday but was canceled because of the Israeli incursion. Arafat announced a new Cabinet on Sunday, trimming membership from 31 to 21 ministers.
Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath headed to Washington on Thursday for talks with Powell and to present the Palestinian position ahead of an expected policy statement by President Bush on the Middle East that could come early next week.
"We call for immediate Israeli implementation of the Security Council resolutions, to lift the closure and to end all acts of aggression against our people and that any future political process be based on the Arab initiatives," Shaath said.
He was referring to U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 Middle East war — land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Arab League adopted a proposal earlier this year promising Israel comprehensive peace with the Arab world in exchange for a complete withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967.
The Israelis completed their pullout from Ramallah on Wednesday before midnight, according to an Israeli military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, but the Israelis kept a tight grip on the outskirts, restricting travel.
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.
Last week, in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 17 Israelis, Israeli tanks and bulldozers broke through the outside wall and destroyed three buildings, including Palestinian intelligence headquarters.
During the latest 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.
Wednesday was mostly violence-free. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades issued a leaflet claiming responsibility for a bombing Tuesday in the Israeli city of Herzliya, in which a 15-year-old girl was killed.
The militia, linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, named the bomber as Omar Ziada, 30, from the village of Madama near Nablus.
Early Thursday, Israeli troops raided the Palestinian village of Tubas, near the West Bank city of Jenin, the army and Palestinian witnesses said. Three Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were wounded in exchanges of fire that erupted when forces entered the town. Palestinian sources said Jamal Daraghmeh, the leader of Arafat's Fatah faction in Tubas, was among several people arrested. The Israeli army has been conducting daily raids into Palestinian areas.
With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon flying home after talks in Washington and London, Powell raised the possibility of a provisional state for the Palestinians.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he didn't know what Powell meant by a provisional state, but said the important thing was to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli officials were unavailable for comment, with Sharon and top aides traveling.
Akiva Eldar, political analyst for the respected Israeli Haaretz daily, said the concept was similar to one considered in talks between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia — declaration of a Palestinian state first, and then negotiations over borders, Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees. Eldar said Peres had raised the idea with U.S. National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Traveling to Canada for a meeting of foreign ministers, Powell said, "It isn't all that new and revolutionary a suggestion. It's been a pretty consistent element in all of the discussions about how to move forward in the Middle East."
Meanwhile, a poll showed that 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.
Fifty-one percent of those surveyed believed the Palestinian goal of the conflict was 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 survey 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 suicide bombings was still strong, but also 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.