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Five Palestinians Dead Protesting Arafat Siege

Israel said it had stopped demolishing Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters Sunday, but would maintain a siege around the building and demand the surrender of the people inside. The move followed a day of protests against the siege that left five Palestinians dead.

Palestinian leaders declared a general strike for Monday, appealed to the Arab world for help and called on their people to resist the Israeli operation, which started Thursday after a Palestinian homicide bomber blew up a Tel Aviv bus, killing himself and six others.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Jeanne Mamo said Sunday that Israel's assault was "not helpful in reducing terrorist violence or promoting Palestinian reforms."

France led a European wave of criticism against the Israeli assault, calling it "unacceptable." A Greek Foreign Ministry statement said that Arafat asked Greece to work with the United States and Europe to end the siege, while Britain and Russia urged Israel to end the confinement. The U.N. Security Council was to convene Monday about the siege.

By the time huge Israeli military bulldozers pulled out of the city-block-sized compound after nightfall Sunday, only one building stood intact -- Arafat's office, where he and his aides were confined to four rooms.

Israelis themselves debated the usefulness of the operation, the third inside Arafat's compound this year, especially given the persistent reports that its actual goal was to compel Arafat to leave the Palestinian territories -- a dramatic prospect that could redefine the terms of the current conflict.

Palestinian officials had also warned that Israel's pulverization of Arafat's compound endangered the safety of the feeble 72-year-old Palestinian leader, and after nightfall Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said the demolition work had ended.

"There is no physical danger, neither to Arafat nor to the other people," Peres said Sunday on CNN's Late Edition.

"We don't want to expel him, we don't want to kill him, we don't want to hurt him," he said. "There was a vote in the government. The majority of the government decided against expulsion."

Earlier in the day, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and bullets to try to stop demonstrations in West Bank towns as thousands of marchers disregarded military orders confining them to their homes. Four protesters were killed during the demonstrations, Palestinians said.

Later, a 13-year-old boy was also killed under disputed circumstances: Palestinians said he was shot while violating the curfew, while Israeli military sources said a firebomb he was trying to light ignited his clothing instead.

About 7,000 Palestinians marched in Lebanon's largest refugee camp, threatening retaliation should Israel harm or kill Arafat.

"If Arafat is martyred, we will bomb embassies," some of the marchers shouted in Ein el-Hilweh camp. The demonstrators carried portraits of Arafat, Palestinian flags and placards calling on world leaders to protect Arafat.

For three days, huge Israeli bulldozers systematically knocked down buildings in the city-block-sized compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, closing in on Arafat's office, where the beleaguered leader was holed up in four rooms with his aides. The Israelis surrounded the building with barbed wire.

Water and electricity in the office building were cut for several hours. Palestinians interpreted this as pressure on Arafat, who continued to resist Israeli demands to hand over the people in his office. The Israeli military said the lines were cut by accident as huge bulldozers leveled structures in the area and that the lines were later repaired.

A few hundred yards away, dozens of protesters defied army orders to return to their homes. As soldiers used loudspeakers to declare that the curfew was still in effect, the demonstrators chanted back, "No more curfew!"

In a statement, the Palestinian parliament called on Palestinians to "show their willingness to resist this escalation," warning that Israel's operation might lead to a regional explosion and blaming both Israel and the United States. "The American administration bears responsibility of blood of our people and of our leadership," the statement said, a reference to U.S. support for Israel.

Israel insisted that Arafat was not a target, but demanded the surrender of everyone inside his office, about 200 people, saying that most would probably be released. Initially, Israel had said only some 20 people inside were wanted and singled out West Bank intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi.

Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said 38 Palestinians had turned themselves in since Thursday, and "most of them" were released. Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said terrorists were hiding inside, and "as long as they are not put on trial before their Maker or before a judge, we will not end the siege."

Arafat said Arab members of the Israeli parliament trying to visit him were stopped at a roadblock by Israeli soldiers. One of them, Ahmed Tibi, said he spoke to Arafat on the telephone and was told: '"We won't turn anyone over to Israel."'

A picture taken Sunday showed Arafat grim-faced, wearing large, black-rimmed reading glasses as he went over a document.

In Gaza City, thousands marched in front of the Palestinian parliament building. Holding an automatic rifle, Abu Mohammed, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militia, linked to Arafat's Fatah, said, "It is time for all Palestinians to teach the Israelis a lesson and defend Arafat."

The current drama began hours after a Palestinian homicide bomber blew up a bus in Tel Aviv on Thursday, killing himself and six others.

Israel clamped around-the-clock curfews on five West Bank centers it currently controls -- Nablus, Ramallah, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Jenin. Then Israeli tanks and bulldozers rumbled into Arafat's already-battered compound and began destroying the buildings around Arafat's main office.

Israelis were divided over the operation, with critics charging that the operation was counterproductive, ignoring the Islamic militants who actually carried out the recent attacks and only rallying Palestinians around Arafat at a time when voices had begun to be heard urging him to share some power.

Some hardline Cabinet Ministers urged Sharon to move even more forcefully and expel Arafat -- and Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri, from the moderate Labor Party, hinted that Israel would like Arafat to leave on his own accord.

If he did, Shiri told Army Radio, he would not be allowed to return. "We'll give him a one-way ticket in a dignified way," he said.