Stalemate Deepens at Arafat’s Headquarters
With Israeli tanks and jackhammers silent, a quieter siege set in Monday at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s ruined headquarters, now ringed by rubble and thick coils of barbed wire. An armed assault turned into a paper war, with Israelis and Palestinians arguing over lists, or the lack of them, of suspected terrorists.
The two sides held their first face-to-face meeting since Israel surrounded Arafat’s executive compound, known as the Muqata, and destroyed all but the one building now housing the Palestinian Authority president and about 250 aides, guards and other workers. No progress was reported in that meeting, nor in a series of meetings and phone calls involving Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations special envoy to the Mideast.
“We could be here for weeks,” said a diplomatic source close to the talks.
He added that the U.N. envoy was growing concerned about living conditions in the compound, whose occupants are crowded together in a few rooms, with periodic water shortages, a lack of air conditioning and a severe shortage of toilet facilities. The Israeli military has sent in food and underwear, among other supplies.
Early today, despite a U.S. abstention, the U.N. Security Council approved a compromise resolution on the Middle East demanding that Israel cease its actions around Arafat’s compound while condemning terrorist attacks. The resolution was negotiated by the European Union and was based on competing proposals from the Palestinians and the United States.
Deputy U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said the resolution was “flawed in our view in that it failed to explicitly condemn the terrorist organizations and those who provide them with political cover.”
The Palestinian draft resolution blamed Israel for an upsurge in violence over the last two years. U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte countered with a proposal that called for the Palestinians to halt suicide bombings but also demanded that Israel stop its siege of Arafat’s headquarters.
Senior U.S. officials called Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to express President Bush’s concern about Israel’s weekend actions in Ramallah, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said en route to Trenton, N.J., with Bush for a political fund-raiser.
“The president views what Israel is doing now as unhelpful to the cause of bringing about reform in Palestinian institutions,” he said. In a separate incursion, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and helicopter gunships moved into two neighborhoods of Gaza City today. Nine Palestinians were killed in the assault, including several militants associated with Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The Israeli army said troops destroyed 13 workshops allegedly used to make weapons, as well as the home of a militant, Mohammed Farhat, who was suspected of taking part in a March attack that killed five Israelis.
In the Ramallah assault, Israel moved against the Muqata on Thursday, hours after a suicide bomber killed five civilians on a bus in Tel Aviv in the latest of many such attacks carried out by Palestinian militants in the last two years. Another victim of that attack died later.
The Sharon government initially said that the assault on the Muqata was intended to isolate Arafat, but it later began demanding that the Palestinians turn over 19 men, said to be among those trapped inside the compound, who it said are wanted for terror-related crimes.
First, the Palestinians complained that they had been given no list of names. Israeli officials said none was needed. “Everybody knows who these people are,” Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said.
Then the number of suspects ballooned to 50, according to a senior Israeli military officer who is commanding the operation at Arafat’s headquarters. The officer said the number rose after interrogation of other Palestinians who abandoned the headquarters complex in the first hours of the siege.
Arafat said he had no intention of turning anyone in. The Israelis countered by asking for a list of everyone in the compound--a request the Palestinians dismissed as a fishing expedition.
The Israelis have publicly named only four people who are accused of terrorism and assumed to be in the compound. Chief among them is Tawfiq Tirawi, the Palestinian head of intelligence in the West Bank, who, according to the Israel Defense Forces, operated a terrorist cell of Arafat’s Fatah movement in the West Bank and transferred money and weapons to support terrorist activity.
Israeli radio reported Monday that Israeli officials had rejected a Palestinian proposal to transfer the wanted men to Palestinian-run jails in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Sharon, speaking in Tel Aviv, said he was determined that the suspects be handed over to Israel.
Some Israelis have questioned why Sharon would punish Arafat for the suicide bombings without going after the leaders of Hamas, the militant organization that has claimed responsibility for last week’s attack in Tel Aviv and many others. Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, has recently been seen on television from his base in the Gaza Strip, commenting on the attacks.
Sharon’s answer: Hamas may be next. “We haven’t finished our work in the Gaza Strip,” the prime minister said. “And when the day comes when we gather our forces, we will work to strike Hamas and to deprive it of its capabilities.”
It was not clear whether the attack today in Gaza was part of this strategy. The Israeli army said its troops pulled back this morning after accomplishing their goals.
Sharon has also been criticized for raising Arafat’s profile and causing Palestinians to rally around him.
“Instead of letting Arafat naturally lose his place in history--something which he has done pretty well on his own--we, over the recent months, have turned him into a martyr, reuniting the Palestinian people around him,” said Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik. “I don’t see the logic in this.”
In another incident Monday, one Israeli was killed and three wounded when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on Jews visiting the Cave of the Patriarchs, which Jews and Muslims revere as the burial site of Abraham, Sarah and other biblical figures.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem and Edwin Chen in Trenton contributed to this report.