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Israeli attack leaves Arafat HQ barely standing

7 June 2002

The punishment was swift, devastating and personal. The 18 people who died in the latest suicide bombing were not yet buried before Israeli tanks were back inside Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters on a mission that just fell short of getting rid of the Palestinian leader himself.

They fired a shell into his sleeping quarters, blowing a hole in a wall a few feet from the bed in a room which, according to the guard outside, he occasionally uses. It was a powerful and deliberate gesture by Israel's armed forces, serving notice that they could easily kill him if he does not meet their demands. There was no plan to hurt Mr Arafat, said an Israeli army spokesman, Captain Jacob Dallal. But if there had been, "it would not have been a problem", he added.

They smashed up the steps to the entrance of his office complex, the flight on which the limelight-addicted Palestinian leader and visiting dignitaries, from the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw posed for the cameras in better times.

And they finished it all off by using a bulldozer to shunt one of his prized black four-wheel- drives into the doorway a contemptuous gesture also designed to remind Mr Arafat of the supremacy of the forces mustered against him.

The Israeli tanks and soldiers arrived in Ramallah in the early hours, propelled by wrath over 17 people 13 of them young male and female soldiers, some in their teens who were killed when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber in an explosives-packed stolen car blew up a bus near Afula in lower Galilee on Wednesday.

By the time the Israeli forces withdrew to the edge of the town, six hours later, Mr Arafat's compound battered and scarred from previous bouts of Israeli retaliation, but defended anew by pathetic piles of sandbags was an utter mess. The number of buildings in ruins, some blown up by sappers, outnumbered those left standing. Two Palestinian security men were killed.

A windsock hung limply from the roof of Mr Arafat's half-wrecked half-wrecked compound, a reminder of the days when Mr Arafat was allowed to fly by helicopter around his broken-up fiefdom.

Tank shells had punched holes in the walls, badly damaging an overhead bridge between his offices and a meeting hall. Only a few weeks ago, hoping to draw the world's attention to the Israeli army's siege of the compound, international peace campaigners had taken over and slept in the same bridge, waving at the surrounding Israeli troops.

Mr Arafat survived unscathed, and emerged into the rubble and early-morning sunlight flashing "V" for victory signs at the television cameras which the Israelis and the Palestinians were happy to allow in. Precisely what victory he had in mind was unclear, since his position is more abysmal than ever although the Israeli assault may have improved his sagging popularity among his own people.

"This will only increase the steadfastness of our people," he told the crowd. "Come and see what they have done. It's fascism and blatant racism."

He later showed a reporter around his bedroom, eager to present the tank shell as a near miss, to be added to his legendary close escapes from Israeli bombs in Beirut two decades ago when the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon then the Defence Minister led the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Mr Arafat, pointing to his dust-covered bed, broken bedroom mirror and shattered bathroom tiles, said he was supposed to have slept there last night. "Of course they [the Israelis] knew where I was," he said. "Everybody knows this is my bedroom."

A colonel in Mr Arafat's security forces, who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed, said Mr Arafat had spent the time during the assault brandishing his German-made machine pistol and making international telephone calls.

Surrounded by about 60 members of his presidential guard, he sought refuge in an office complex on the floor below his sleeping quarters. "He told us to watch out, be careful, and not to shoot," the colonel said. "We were only to shoot if the Israeli soldiers came inside and you have to defend yourself."

The Israeli forces had wreaked havoc on the "presidential" car fleet: the Mercedes, Jeeps and Range Rovers that bear testimony to better days, when his forces were groomed by the CIA and international aid flowed in. Eighteen vehicles were damaged, Abu Mohammed said, looking at the shattered, dust-caked fleet in the "presidential garage" as thin shafts of sunlight streamed in through the holes left by Israeli machine-gun bullets.

But the worst destruction had occurred to the compound's outbuildings. Israeli sappers blew up a two-storey military intelligence building, an unoccupied prison, the barracks for the national security forces and other buildings. In all, nine were razed, Palestinian officials said, although it was unclear whether some of these were brought down in previous attacks. This act of punishment was meant as yet another last chance for Mr Arafat, although it also signalled that Mr Sharon, having failed to subdue the intifada with harsh military means, is running out of ideas.

The Israelis blame Mr Arafat for the suicide bombings and have tried to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian security forces, which they say must attempt to stop extremist groups from staging such attacks. Even if the security forces did act, however, they would probably be ineffective unless the Palestinians were given some hope of political progress which Mr Sharon refuses to offer unless his demands are fulfilled.

The dominant right-wing in the Israeli government wants to get rid of Mr Arafat altogether. But their own security services see no replacement, and fear that his death or departure might result in chaos.

That might be a desirable state of affairs for hardliners who advocate total reoccupation of the West Bank, but not for America or the neighbouring Arab states, which fear that meltdown in the West Bank and Gaza Strip might disrupt the entire region.

Phil Reeves, Ramallah
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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