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Arafat Siege Goes on as Tanks Pull Out
22 April 2002
Israeli tanks and armor yesterday redeployed around the cities of Nablus and Ramallah as Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon said the first stage of Israel's offensive had ended.
In Nablus, tanks drew back to the perimeters of the town, and they pulled out of the center of Ramallah, where Palestinians emerged from 23 days under siege yesterday to scenes of widespread destruction.
A security compound, and the education and finance ministries were ransacked, as was the Mattin human rights organisations, where workers said the departing troops scrawled a message in English on the wall, reading "Fucking Arabs, never mess with us again," and signed it IDF, Israel Defense Forces.
However, the tanks remained outside Yasser Arafat's ruined headquarters, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where scores of Palestinians, including nuns and gunmen, are in their third week under Israeli siege.
"We have finished this stage of the operation," Mr Sharon told reporters. "We have achieved very notable accomplishments but the struggle against terrorism continues and will continue. But now it will employ a different method."
Mr Sharon did not give details, but has spoken previously about creating a buffer zone that would make it more difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank to reach Israeli cities and towns.
However, he was less buoyant in discussions with his cabinet yesterday where he admitted that he had been forced to accept the fact-finding mission into the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp established by the UN last Friday as the least damaging option for Israel's image. The prospect of outside scrutiny of the army has caused widespread consternation in Israel, which yesterday launched a personalized attack on Terje Roed Larsen, the UN's special envoy to the Middle East, with Mr Sharon telling his cabinet that he had instructed officials to shun any contact with him. Mr Larsen has criticized Israel for blocking humanitarian convoys to the Jenin camp, and described the flattening of hundreds of homes there as "horrifying beyond belief".
Rightwing Likud politicians and even Labour moderates lined up to pillory the envoy. The defense minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, told Israel Radio that Mr Larsen had "adopted the Palestinians' stance - hook, line and sinker" while the transport minister, Efraim Sneh, said: "The UN is taking sides in a very blatant way. It annoys us very much."
Mr Sneh also took a swipe at Chris Patten, the European Union foreign policy commissioner. "Such declarations are a grave danger to the EU as a possible broker in the conflict."
A spokesman for the envoy said last night: "Mr Larsen is puzzled by the criticism, as a long-standing friend of Israel as well as of the Palestinians." Mr Larsen was instrumental in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for the secret talks that led to the Oslo peace accords and has spent eight years in the Middle East.
The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, who tried but failed to negotiate a truce during a visit to the region last week, said Israel should loosen its confinement of Mr Arafat to give him a better chance of exercising his authority. "I think the more access he is given, the opportunity he is given to show whether or not he can control forces or bring this security situation under control," Mr Powell said in Washington.
Israel says it will maintain the siege of Mr Arafat's headquarters until he surrenders four men wanted for the killing last October of tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi and the man accused of arranging a weapons shipment to militant groups. Mr Arafat's aides have said the suspects are in custody in the compound and will be tried by the Palestinian Authority.
In Ramallah, meanwhile, Palestinians emerged yesterday for their first glimpse of the destruction wrought by Israel's occupation. The compound of the Palestinian preventative security services - the premier police force - was a blackened shell, with the archives room strewn with white ash.
Suzanne Goldenberg, Jerusalem