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Israeli Military Invades Arafat Compound After Bus Bombing

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- TEL AVIV

Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry invaded Arafat’s compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah after dark Thursday. Witnesses reported fierce machine-gun battles and explosions as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem summoned his Cabinet for an emergency session and some ministers demanded that Arafat be captured and exiled.

At least two of Arafat’s bodyguards were reported wounded. Tanks took up positions on the parking lot and outside the front door of Arafat’s battered compound, where the Palestinian Authority president has been holed up almost continuously for months.

Israel said it was attempting to “isolate” Arafat and was demanding the surrender of 19 militants who it claimed had taken refuge in Arafat’s office. Early Friday, eight men were reported to have handed themselves over as Israeli bulldozers flattened trailers used by Palestinian security forces.

In response to the bus attack of Thursday, Israel imposed a blanket 24-hour curfew on the entire West Bank, home to about 2 million Palestinians. A similar measure had been in place in most cities in Israel and the Palestinian territories since June, in response to an earlier wave of suicide bombings, but was being gradually relaxed in some areas.

Some Israelis argued Thursday that lifting the curfew had allowed the new attacks to be set in motion.

“The minute we opened Jenin and Nablus, and opened the road between them, we saw two suicide bombings,” Sharon’s spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said Thursday night.

Gissin said the government, in its emergency meeting, decided on “operational” moves in its “difficult and arduous campaign against the despicable terror led by” Arafat.

Gissin would not elaborate, but the operation underway in Ramallah was clearly the first step. Tanks and armored bulldozers were also rolling into the edge of Gaza City and Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza.

A senior government official said the purpose was to “isolate” Arafat, to promote those Palestinians willing to replace his leadership and to “send a clear message that we are tightening our grip.”

Israeli officials said they were also taking advantage of the moment to seize 19 Palestinians wanted on a variety of “terror” charges and who purportedly have taken refuge inside Arafat’s compound. They include Tawfik Tirawi, the head of Palestinian intelligence.

Israel maintains that the 45 days in which not a single Israeli civilian was killed inside Israel were the result of tough military action.

At the same time, however, Palestinians have been engaged in a debate over the direction of their two-year-old uprising against Israeli rule, and public opposition to suicide bombings and violence against Israeli civilians has been growing.