Arafat Headquarters Bombed to Ruin

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a vivid symbol of his power and of the state he expected to create and lead. But much of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's headquarters lay in ruins Sunday after Israeli warships and combat helicopters blasted the building from the air and sea with about 35 missiles in 45 minutes.

The attack came in retaliation for a pair of horrific Palestinian assaults Saturday--a suicide bombing at a crowded Jerusalem cafe and a shooting rampage at a hotel in the town of Netanya that left 16 people dead and about 100 wounded.

The strike on Arafat's offices also fit into Israel's larger campaign of hitting the Palestinians relentlessly until they sue for peace. The strategy was both psychological--delivering the message that Israel can restrict and humiliate Arafat--and concrete. Scores of police and security force buildings in the Gaza Strip have been leveled by aerial bombardment in recent weeks.

In one sprawling two-block complex here, 23 of 25 buildings housing various branches of the police have been flattened or damaged beyond repair.

Palestinians say the strategy is not working. If anything, they say, every escalation in the Israeli offensive inspires an escalation by Palestinian militants--another wave of suicide bombers, another commando operation.

Israel says it targets Arafat and his security services because they have failed to rein in terrorists. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would like to permanently sideline Arafat and work with a more malleable Palestinian leader.

But in all the eye-for-an-eye violence of the last months, Israel had avoided damaging Arafat's offices. The larger compound was hit several times, but not until early Sunday did Israeli forces zoom in on the two-story stucco building where Arafat has held court since he returned from exile and became president of the Palestinian Authority in 1994.

Here, he received numerous world leaders, including President Clinton. Television cameras repeatedly chronicled the comings and goings of important visitors as Arafat draped himself in the trappings of sovereignty and nationhood.

On Sunday, security guards picked through the pieces. Chunks of concrete and shards of terra cotta tiles from the entryway's roof littered the ground. The building was still standing, but it was in very bad shape. Missiles had punched gaping holes where the windows once were and had slammed through the roof of an annex containing political offices.

Arafat was not present either during the airstrike or afterward because he has been confined by Israel to the West Bank city of Ramallah since early December.

Someone had hung six photographs of Arafat from the ruins of the building, as if to reassert his dwindling authority.

"When this place is hit, it means all of Palestine is hit," declared Dr. Jihad Atta, head of the Palestinian doctors union, who was part of a small demonstration in support of Arafat. The protesters, who included a number of doctors, lawyers and other professionals, along with gruff gunmen, demanded an end to Israeli occupation and waved signs with pictures of Sharon, prison bars drawn across his face.

Around 1 p.m., the sound of an unmanned drone aircraft and distant heavy-caliber machine-gun fire sent the people around Arafat's demolished offices into a panic. They ran from the site, hopped in cars and beat a hasty retreat.

There was no airstrike then. But later Sunday, Israeli F-16 warplanes returned to the northern end of Gaza to bombard a police station. No one was hurt in the raid.

Abdelaziz Shahin, a veteran member of Arafat's Fatah movement who spent 17 years in Israeli jails and now is the minister of supply, was in his office with two reporters when the warplanes began flying overhead. The jets made 13 roaring passes in 30 minutes.

"This is what Israel means for us," Shahin said, gesturing skyward. "How can I convince my people to make peace with Israelis?"

He echoed other Gazans in saying that it is not likely that suicide bombings or other reprisals will end any time soon, because many Palestinians see no alternative to escalating bloodshed and feel they have nothing to lose.

Sunday evening, Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at another police post in the center of the Jabaliya refugee camp just north of Gaza City as members of the radical Islamic movement Hamas were gathering to celebrate Saturday's suicide bombing at the Jerusalem cafe. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°