Israeli Forces Destroy Most of Arafat's West Bank Compound
RAMALLAH, West Bank – Explosions rocked Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound Saturday, showering him with debris, as the Israeli army blew up or bulldozed buildings around him in the Palestinian Authority's headquarters.
On Saturday evening, soldiers with loudspeakers ordered the estimated 200 people holed up in Arafat's offices to evacuate or else troops would storm the building, a Palestinian official told Fox News.
There were also reports that Israel threatened several times over loudspeakers to blow up the building -- the last one still standing in the compound -- unless 50 wanted men inside, including the West Bank intelligence chief, surrendered.
The army later said it had no plans of blowing up the building, and Israel has said it does not intend to harm Arafat.
One of the officials inside the besieged building told Fox News that Arafat's position is protected and that he has been using a cell phone to speak with high-level foreign leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Mubarak.
The leaders pledged to call top U.S. contacts immediately to urge them to try to stop Israeli aggression, the official said. Arafat and his aides have no intention of surrendering, he continued.
Early Sunday, Arafat's Fatah movement led protest marches in several West Bank towns, defying Israeli military curfews.
In the United States, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told The Associated Press that he telephoned Arafat and spoke with him "directly."
Jackson said both he and the secretary general of the Arab league had been trying, without success, to telephone President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell to register their opposition to the Israeli action.
In Ramallah, just a few miles from Arafat's compound, troops fired tear gas and live bullets to disperse hundreds of men, women and children chanting "long live Arafat, long live Palestine." Two protesters were killed by army fire, hospital officials said.
Two more people were killed in the towns of Tulkarem and Nablus. In Tulkarem, gunmen traded fire with Israeli troops. In the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, about 5,000 people joined the protests, some firing submachine guns into the air and holding up Arafat pictures.
In the West Bank town of Jericho, about 400 protesters marched to a local prison, demanding the release of six men held under U.S. and British supervision as part of a deal that prompted Israel to lift its siege of Arafat's compound in May.
The foreign monitors threatened to leave, saying they felt endangered by the mob, according to security officials in Jericho.
Israeli troops late Saturday began telling residents around the compound to evacuate. The attack is a reprisal for a Tel Aviv bus bombing that killed six people.
Palestinian officials said Israel's demand for the surrender of wanted men, including West Bank intelligence chief Tawfik Tirawi, was just a pretext, and that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s real objective is to humiliate Arafat.
"Sharon is implementing his plan of destroying the Palestinian Authority and the peace process, harming President Arafat and resuming the occupation," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, left open the possibility that troops would stay on even if the wanted men surrender.
"First of all, we want those people in our hands," he said. "Then we will consider what action, what further action we will have to take in order to ensure and defend our citizens."
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Nathan Sharansky told Fox News Saturday afternoon that his administration simply wants to "bring these people to justice." Another official said that at this point Israel wants to see Arafat either extremely weakened or sent into exile.
"We are in a middle of a war against terror," he said in a telephone interview, adding that "nothing" will be done to Arafat and that isolating him was the "modest" option. "We want only to stop his involvement in terrorist activity."
"Don't be surprised if there is only rubble left," another Israeli official told Fox News, speaking of the only building in the compound still standing.
Sharansky said that the terrorist suspects will be interrogated once they come out of the compound. Those in isolation that are not on their list will be released, he said.
"We're not going to keep any of those not involved in terrorist activity one more day in our prisons," than necessary, he said.
Bush administration officials fear that if Arafat were injured or killed, it would be an enormous complication for American efforts to secure peace in the region and to combat possible terror threats, especially in Iraq.
The White House and the European Union on Friday urged Israel not to go too far in its retaliation. The bombing, claimed by Arafat's Islamic militant rival Hamas, would upset efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority.
"Israel has the right to defend itself and to deal with security, but Israel also has a need to bear in mind the consequences of action and Israel's stake in development of reforms in the Palestinian institutions," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
One U.S. official questioned Sharon's motivations, suggesting he could be taking such aggressive action against Arafat to shore up his political standing.
France demanded Saturday that Israel halt the operation, saying it was unacceptable. The European Union's foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, said the raid would not end terrorism but would undermine efforts to work out a truce.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to meet Monday to discuss the latest actions.
But Erekat said the Palestinians are dismayed the debate will not be sooner.
"Things cannot wait until Monday. We want an immediate decision from the council," he said.
The Israeli government and security establishment are divided over whether to expel Arafat. Arafat has said he would never again leave the Palestinian lands.
Arafat on Saturday again called on Palestinian militants to stop attacks inside Israel.
"I reiterate my call to our people and all our factions to halt any violent attacks inside Israel because (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon exploits these operations as a cover to implement his plans to destroy the peace of the brave," Arafat said in a statement.
Arieh Mekel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, dismissed Arafat's appeal to the militants. "We don't care what Arafat says, one way or the other," he said.
Arafat has been showered with dust and debris but reportedly is not hurt. Bulldozers tore out sections of the compound and dug trenches while troops ran barbed wire around the main building. Arafat has been spending time on the phone, contacting world leaders.
Beside him was a holstered pistol with belt, a desk calculator, a box of tissues and two bottles of mineral water. There is enough water from rooftop tanks and stored food to last a few days.
The Israeli army has not released a complete list of names of wanted men. However, it detailed allegations against four, including Tirawi and Mahmoud Damra, head of Force 17, Arafat's elite bodyguard unit, in Ramallah.
"We are confident of our ability to overcome this crisis," Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayad said via telephone.
"I say it frankly, we are ready for peace, not for capitulation and we will not give up Jerusalem or a grain of our soil from our homeland, Palestine," Arafat said in his statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.