Israel Hunts Arafat Aides as Assault Mounts

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships pounded the main Palestinian security headquarters in the West Bank and thrust into the center of Bethlehem early today in a mounting offensive that Israel said was aimed against terrorism.

As the offensive closed in on them, Palestinian gunmen killed 10 compatriots accused of collaborating with the Jewish state. Nine of them were hauled from detention centers and shot in the streets Monday, apparently to prevent their rescue by advancing Israeli forces.

The predawn Israeli assaults near Ramallah and inside Bethlehem marked one of the biggest operations against the 18-month-old Palestinian uprising. It came on the sixth day of Operation Protective Wall, a punishing counteroffensive that has left those Palestinian-ruled cities and two others fully occupied by Israeli troops.

The attack on the security headquarters signals a shift in Israeli strategy. It shows that Israel has decided to hunt key aides to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Israeli leaders say the offensive is aimed at a Palestinian terrorist infrastructure blamed for six suicide attacks that have claimed more than 40 lives since Wednesday. A Palestinian wearing an explosive belt blew himself up near Jerusalem's Old City late Monday, severely wounding the policeman who had stopped the Palestinian's car.

By dawn today, the sprawling U.S.-built complex housing the Palestinian Authority's Preventive Security Service in Beitunia, just west of Ramallah, was in flames after hours of explosions and bursts of machine-gun fire.

Palestinian officials said about 400 people were inside and desperate to escape, a claim that could not be independently verified. Col. Jibril Rajoub, the West Bank's security chief, had reportedly ordered his men at the compound to resist. Rajoub himself was not present.

Israel maintains that several top Arafat lieutenants have been implicated in attacks on Israelis and have been hiding in the building. Among them is Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah activist who is the de facto head of West Bank militias and patron of the uprising.

Barghouti may have been in the complex, which was so ornate that it contained a soaring atrium and lobby into which Rajoub could drive his armored cars. Until now, senior Israeli officials had said Barghouti was not a target. But Israel's intelligence establishment holds him responsible for the relentless wave of attacks.

Rajoub heads the CIA-trained Preventive Security Service and has always been a favorite among American officials and numerous Israelis as well. He has often been cited by Israelis as the kind of "pragmatic" Palestinian they would prefer to work with. At least until recently, the only photograph on his desk was one of himself with CIA Director George J. Tenet.

Many had assumed Rajoub's headquarters would be immune to attack. It is one of a very small handful of police installations that had not been bombarded by Israel in the last 18 months. The Preventive Security Service is the body that would be responsible for most of the arrests of militants demanded by Israel.

Gunfire Is Heard Blocks From Nativity Church

In Bethlehem, Israeli tanks and helicopters met some resistance as they moved into the biblical city from two directions about an hour before dawn, residents said. Exchanges of gunfire were heard several blocks from the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

Israeli forces surrounded the Dahaisha refugee camp on the edge of the city and began searching homes for Palestinian militants, residents said.

Arafat remained trapped in Ramallah Monday, pinned down by Israeli troops within the walls of his compound. He and his followers call the Israeli offensive a punitive campaign against all Palestinians who demand an independent state.

"We do not understand what the Israelis want out of this, but we are expecting a long siege," said Mohammed Madani, governor of the Bethlehem region, predicting severe hardship for its 150,000 inhabitants.

After a day of troop movements and sporadic gunfire across the West Bank, the Israeli government announced late Monday the call-up of 11,000 reservists to join 20,000 others mobilized last week for the offensive.

Tension also ran high in the Gaza Strip, where gunfire from an Israeli border observation tower killed a 13-year-old Palestinian boy near a market in Rafah. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah guerrillas fired two rockets at Israel for the first time since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon in May 2000. The rockets exploded harmlessly in fields.

Israeli forces moved into the Palestinian towns of Kalkilya and Tulkarm, in the northern part of the West Bank, on Sunday night and Monday. They met little resistance, except for a bomb explosion that wounded eight Israeli soldiers searching a home in Kalkilya.

Before the Israelis moved in, Palestinian militants entered an apartment in Tulkarm, brought out seven suspected collaborators and shot them dead, Palestinian security officials said.

The apartment has been used by Palestinian military intelligence as a detention center since the Israeli army destroyed the Tulkarm prison in an incursion early this year. Guards at the apartment made no effort to stop the killers, according to reports from the town.

Two other men imprisoned for alleged collaboration were found dead in Kalkilya, killed by compatriots who took justice into their own hands. Several dozen Palestinians accused of helping the Israelis have been executed, with or without trial, during the last year and a half of fighting.

Monday's was the largest number of such executions reported on a single day of the Palestinian uprising. A 10th body was dumped Sunday night near Bethlehem's Manger Square--that of a man captured and shot on suspicion of e-mailing sensitive information to the Israelis.

As in Ramallah, the Israeli forces in Tulkarm and Kalkilya were rounding up young men in search of terrorist suspects. The army said Monday it had made 700 arrests in Ramallah during an offensive that has left 22 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers dead.

Israeli troops and armored vehicles began sealing off roads into and out of Bethlehem on Sunday, preventing Mayor Hanna Nasser and other Christians from traveling to Jerusalem for an Easter Sunday Mass.

The siege prompted many of this city's residents to stock up on food and lock themselves in their homes. The hospital sent home all nonemergency patients to make room for an expected influx of wounded.

Tanks rolled into Bethlehem and two suburbs, Beit Jala and Al Khader, before dawn Monday. They stopped about 500 yards from the Church of the Nativity, but pulled back to the edge of the city during the day.

Townspeople said the Israeli tank assault resumed in earnest early today, backed by F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters.

Militants Wait in Square for Israelis' Arrival

Palestinian militants appeared ready to resist.

More than a dozen young militants wearing combat fatigues and brandishing assault rifles lounged in Manger Square, their informal headquarters, for most of the day Monday, waiting for the Israelis. Some wore the gold and black headbands of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement.

It was Al Aqsa that claimed responsibility for the executions of alleged collaborators here and in Tulkarm and for some of the suicide bombings of the past week--including one carried out by an 18-year-old woman who lived in the Dahaisha refugee camp.

"Our weapons are not as sophisticated as the Israelis', but we will try our best to keep them out of here," said the most articulate of the Al Aqsa militiamen, a 27-year-old Palestinian who wouldn't reveal his name.

He spoke calmly as his hands kept busy with a plastic cup full of strong coffee, an M-16 rifle and a cellular phone. The rifle, he said, was inherited from a boyhood friend killed in combat with the Israelis here last month.

The militiamen voiced enthusiastic loyalty to Arafat, saying they would obey him whether his orders were to cease fire or to fight. For now, they said, Arafat's orders are clear: "Confront the Israelis until the last drop of our blood."

The man with the M-16 defended the suicide bombers as "one of the only ways in which we can put up a fight for the sake of our country and our dignity."

Palestinian support for the suicide bombings and the summary executions was not limited to the militants. Elected city officials, town elders and other noncombatants say they have been radicalized by recent events.

Bethlehem was in Israeli hands for nine days in mid-March and 12 days in October, and people here say its hardships can only get worse in the coming days. Baby formula is already in short supply, the governor reports, and 15 kidney patients are at risk because of a lack of filters for the local hospital's dialysis machine.

Manger Square, jammed with pilgrims for Pope John Paul II's Mass two years ago when hopes for peace were relatively high, was nearly empty Monday except for the militiamen. Religious souvenir shops were closed, as were most of the city's businesses.

Mayor Nasser said the summary execution here of Mahmoud Rahamie, 21, was well deserved.

"He was a very faithful informant," the mayor said dismissively. "As happens to every other collaborator in the world, he was rejected by his own people."

Ahmed Muhaisen, 45, a lifelong resident of the Dahaisha refugee camp, clutched blue worry beads with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other as he watched a report from Ramallah on television. He is a family man who does much of his work for the refugee rights movement on a home computer--not in the trenches of combat.

"Suicide bombing is not part of our culture," Muhaisen said. "But we are fighting an occupier who wants to humiliate us and get us to accept the peace they are offering. We have exhausted passive methods. We don't want violence, but it has been imposed on us. We are desperate. So the Palestinians have invented a new form of resistance--a human bomb."

"Let the world say we're terrorists," he added. "What can we do?"

Rumsfeld Condemns Iran, Iraq and Syria

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld used a Pentagon news conference to condemn Iran, Iraq and Syria for supporting and encouraging the suicide bombings in Israel.

Rumsfeld said Iraq was financing terrorism against Israel by subsidizing the families of suicide bombers.

"I think the world ought to know that Saddam Hussein's idea of having a nice day is offering 10, 20, 30 thousand dollars, whatever it is, to families of people who talk their children into going out and blowing up a restaurant in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem," he said.

Iran and Syria are sending terrorists "down the Damascus Road through the Bekaa Valley to southern Lebanon," where they launch guerrilla attacks against Israel, and Iran is directly involved in shipping arms to Palestinian terror groups, he said.

While the Bush administration continued to place blame for the conflict squarely on Israel's enemies, about 60 foreign peace activists marched through Bethlehem and Beit Jala on Monday demanding an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Six of the activists and a Palestinian cameraman for Associated Press Television were wounded when an Israeli soldier fired several shots from a machine gun into the pavement in front of them. Two Americans were among the injured. The most seriously hurt, a British woman, underwent surgery to remove shrapnel from her abdomen.

Paul Larudee, 56, of Richmond, Calif., said he and other marchers were trying to persuade Israeli soldiers to let them pass. "They waved us away," he said. "We kept gesturing that we wanted to talk. After about three seconds one of them started firing."

*

Boudreaux reported from Bethlehem and Wilkinson from Ramallah. Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°