|By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 30, 2002; 4:28 PM
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Mar. 30 - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appealed to the international community today for help from a dark, windowless room as Isareli troops tightened the seige of his compound. In Tel Aviv tonight, a suicide bomber set off a powerful explosion in a crowded restaurant, wounding dozens of people, the third bombing in as many days.
President Bush, prodded in telephone calls from Arab leaders to address the spiraling violence, told reporters in Crawford, Texas that Arafat "can do a lot more" to prevent attacks against Israelis and that the United States supports Israel"s right to defend itself. Bush said he had been assured that Israel would not kill or harm Arafat and said he would leave the U.S. envoy, Antony Zinni, in the region.
His comments came several hours after seven Red Crescent ambulances lined up outside Arafat"s battered headquarters here today to bring him food, water, medicines and batteries for his mobile phone. After an hour-long stand-off with Israeli forces, the ambulances were briefly permitted through the cordon of Israeli tanks and troops which surrounded Arafat for a second day. The siege is part of a larger security operation that Israel says is a response to a suicide bombing on Wednesday which killed 22 people in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya.
Israel has called up thousands of reservists and officials have said the army will broaden the operation in Palestinian-controlled areas in coming days. Tanks rumbled into the Palestinian town of Beit Jalla, just south of Jerusalem and next to biblical Bethlehem, where Christians are observing Easter weekend. Tanks also entered the town of Beituniya, outside Ramallah, surrounding the military compound of West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub.
In response to a U.N. resolution calling for a pullout from Palestinian areas, Israel said it had no interest in remaining in Ramallah or any other Palestinian cities, but was forced to carry out the incursions "because the Palestinians are launching terrorism against our citizens, rather than eradicating terrorism and implementing a cease-fire," the Associated Press reported.
At Arafat"s compound in Ramallah, Israeli soldiers moved in and out through breaches in the periphery wall, but appear to have advanced little further through his office building than they had on Friday. Red Crescent officials evacuated three wounded and one victim of a heart attack.
Arafat today appealed for assistance in an interview with Reuters television illuminated by flashlight. "I am appealing to the whole international community to stop this aggression against our people, this military aggression day and night, this killing," he said. Israel cut off power and water to Arafat on Friday; Red Crescent officials said Arafat and his entourage of close advisors could not reach the kitchen for fear of Israeli gunfire.
Only occasional shooting broke the raspy din of tank engines parked around Arafat"s office today. Elsewhere in Ramallah, gunfights broke out as soldiers stormed office buildings downtown.
Five Palestinian policemen were shot dead in circumstances that were unclear. They were hiding on the fourth floor of the British Council Building, among several other police. An overnight firefight broke out, witnesses said. The victims appeared to have been shot while sitting down in an interior hallway. A reporter saw blood on the walls splattered mostly at waist level; most of the men were shot in the head.
Another office building caught fire in a shootout. At least a dozen Palestinians, some gunmen and some civilians, surrendered.
The urban state of siege also included searches of houses and a hospital. Soldiers made at least 20 arrests. In El Bireh, an adjacent town that is contiguous with Ramallah, soldiers ordered males between the ages of 15 and 45 to gather at a school, where they kept them sitting on a basketball court for five hours. An Israeli officer said that his troops would check their identities with intelligence agencies for association with "terrorist centers." He said he expected no more than one per cent of the 250 detainees to turn up with suspicious credentials.
The sweep of Ramallah was described by Israeli officials as the first step in a campaign to smash the "infrastructure of terror" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Among the 70 "terrorist suspects" rounded up so far, 14 were policemen of the Palestinian National Forces who were at the British Council building. The National Forces are the Palestinian security agency that serves as local police in cities and towns, handling such things as traffic duties.
Another dozen detainees were paramedics and nurses operating three ambulances in central Ramallah. The roundup marked the second consecutive day the Israelis have taken medical personnel into custody. The Israelis as of today had not accused them of being suspected terrorists and the reasons for the detentions was not clear. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross complained that Israeli troops are impeding ambulances from making rescues.
Israeli troops confiscated three ambulances today during the arrests and the whereabouts of the vehicles were unknown. "People are bleeding and dying while we have to negotiate rescue and find our ambulances," said Munther Sharif, the Palestinian deputy health minister.
Arafat"s isolation by the Israeli troops has rallied support for him among Palestinians and in the Arab world. Demonstrations have been held in his honor in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Even those Palestinians who normally have little good to say about him expressed anger at the Israeli siege. "He"s not a good president, but he"s our president," said Majed Abu Ghosh, a printer and former Communist activist. "Corruption, misrule, his unwise negotiations with Israel. We can"t think of that now."
Other than pledging not to kill Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave no indication as to its intentions toward the embattled Palestinian leader, whom he termed an "enemy" on Friday. But Israel appeared to be making preparations in Ramallah for a long stay. Troops set up encampments in tall buildings around the city, and draped them with camouflage netting. What was unthinkable a year ago is now reality: the Israeli reoccupation of a Palestinian city, reminiscent of the quarter century of occupation before peace talks bore fruit in the early 1990s. As a result of those peace talks, many areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were turned over to Palestinian rule.
In Ramallah, the unofficial Palestinian capital, commerce and traffic were at standstill again today. A few people and their children in residential neighborhoods ventured to the streets if tanks were not in sight. The carnage - ozens of wounded and at least 12 dead in two days - has strained blood supplies at hospitals. Normally, Palestinian hospitals rely on fresh donations, but donors fear coming to the hospital, officials said. "We usually have 300 units on reserve," said Mohammed Batrawai, a physician at Ramallah hospital. "We"re down to twelve."
Outside Arafat"s compound, Red Crescent drivers displayed an ambulance pockmarked by bullets they say were fired at the clearly marked vehicle. "We risk our lives to save lives, but we need rescue ourselves," said Hossam Sharkawi, a physician who was on board.
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