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Without Mercy: Israelis Execute Arafat's Elite Guards
31 March 2002
The ambulancemen were carrying the first body out of the Cairo-Amman bank in the center of Ramallah when I came across them.
His knees were doubled up in rigor mortis. One of the legs of his green parachute jumpsuit had been burned through to the skin by a round fired at such close quarters that the muzzle flash had ignited the fabric. A gaping wound was visible in his chest - also apparently from a burst of fire from close range. What killed him, however, was the gunshot to his temple.
A few minutes later, the paramedics brought the second body, that of a young man, also in Yasser Arafat's elite guard unit, Force 17.
Someone had taken off his boots, revealing his blue socks. The wounds that he had obviously been clutching when he died were also to his upper body. But what must have killed him, like his colleague, was a shot fired at close range to his temple that had demolished the back of his head.
The third body was of an older man, in his forties, gray-haired with a mustache. Someone had pulled his parachute suit above his head to hide the wound. When the stretcher-bearers put him down, the covering was pulled back. The wound was to the head.
What happened on the third floor of the Cairo-Amman bank at midnight on Friday during Israel's occupation of the Palestinian city of Ramallah can only be surmised. But in the few minutes after Israeli soldiers stormed the Palestinian position, five men were wounded and five men were put to death by the Israelis, each with a single coup de grace administered to the head or throat.
Maher Shalabi, bureau chief of Abu Dhabi television in Ramallah, was in his office in the same building when he heard several bursts of heavy shooting on the floors below. 'I heard heavy shooting; maybe it was an exchange of fire. But I believe this was an execution.'
Hassan Asfour, a senior Palestinian negotiator, added: 'They were executed in cold blood. This is a clear example of the collective execution policy adopted by the Israeli government against the Palestinian people.'
According to local residents, the dead men were part of a large group of Palestinian policemen who had taken shelter in the building, which also houses the offices of the British council, when the Israeli army entered Ramallah.
The men had taken shelter in the foyer area on the third floor next to a dentist's surgery. Yesterday bullet holes spattered the walls and the floor was flecked with blood. On one wall were large splashes of blood. Elsewhere several bloody trails had been marked along the floor where someone had pulled the bodies towards the lift.
An Israeli army spokesman said soldiers entered the building after Palestinians opened fire from inside and threw a grenade at the force outside.
The coups des graces administered for these five men are a metaphor for what the Israeli incursion is hoping to achieve inside Ramallah. By isolating Arafat within his headquarters, Sharon hopes to decapitate the Palestinian Authority.
Yesterday, inside Arafat's compound, it was clear that, for all the claims of Ariel Sharon, Arafat was neither under threat nor under arrest. Arafat, simply, was surrounded by the Israelis.
As we approached the compound we could see the tanks and armored personnel carriers ringing his sprawl of offices and barracks. On every side were soldiers taking positions and aiming their weapons.
Approaching closer the Israeli army tried to prevent us following a delegation from the Palestinian solidarity movement into the compound, led by José Bové, the French farmers leader and anti-globalization protester.
In a surreal touch Bové and his colleagues had marched through the ruins of the town, even as fighting continued. With hands above their heads, and carrying palm fronds as Easter symbols of peace, they approached Arafat's compound with two columns of heavily armed Israeli infantry jogging the last few hundred meters behind.
Seeing Bové, who had marched through the town with a small group of fellow protesters bearing a tray of medicines for those still injured inside Arafat's compound, the soldiers relented and let us enter with him and approach the offices where Arafat was holed up.
Crossing a large car park we could see a three-story block, its walls splattered with tank fire, two windows blackened by fire with sheets hanging where the occupants had tried to escape the flames.
I followed Bové to the entrance to the offices where Arafat was hiding but was grabbed from behind by an Israeli soldier and pulled away. Arafat may not be a prisoner but it is the Israelis who choose who goes to see the Palestinian chairman.
On every corner yesterday stood Israeli tanks. The devastation that these tanks have wrought inside the Palestinians' most attractive city has to be seen to be believed.
Roads have been dynamited or torn up by tanks. Buildings are burned and shattered. Everywhere there is rubble, spent ammunition and broken glass.
A little later, I met Hossam Sharkawi and Mohamed Awad, two senior officials in the Palestinian Red Crescent who I had met before.
Sharkawi, a co-ordinator for emergency services, told me the Israelis had arrested five of his drivers.
'They have them blindfolded and handcuffed. I cannot understand what the Israelis are thinking. They also used one of our ambulances today as a human shield. They sandwiched it inside a convoy.'
Sharkawi was able to reveal something of life inside Arafat's compound. 'We know there are injured inside,' he said. 'But they have been blocking ambulances entering to give treatment.' How many injured he could not say.
'All that we hear is that there may be between 50 and 100 people trapped with Arafat inside the building, without food, or water or any electricity and no telephone communication.' He shook his head and walked away.
Peter Beaumont, in Ramallah