Arafat's return to freedom

Defiant Palestinian leader sees what is left of compound, city of Ramallah

Los Angeles TimesMay 3, 2002 

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - No longer under Israeli siege, Yasser Arafat toured the wreckage of this city Thursday, praying over a mass grave and pretending to patch a cracked wall to symbolize the massive reconstruction effort that lies ahead.

The Palestinian Authority president's first day of freedom was a series of photo opportunities at schools and office buildings destroyed by the recently departed Israeli army. But any euphoria among the smallish crowds was tempered by the harsh realities Arafat faces -- and by the festering standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Israel lifted its monthlong siege of Arafat's headquarters in the middle of the night Wednesday, pulling the last of its tanks and troops away from Arafat's headquarters and redeploying them on the outskirts of Ramallah. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had said it was imposing the siege to force Arafat to rein in terrorists.

At midmorning, a pale Arafat flashed a "V" for victory and emerged defiantly from the compound, most of which lies in ruins, then sped away in a convoy of security vehicles as crowds who had gathered to see him cheered in support.

The first stop was a grave in the parking lot of Ramallah Hospital, where 17 people killed during the Israeli invasion lay buried. They died during the siege, and when their families could not reach a real cemetery, they were laid to rest en masse instead.

Arafat said brief Muslim prayers over the grave.

Israeli forces entered the West Bank city of Nablus early today and destroyed a three-story building, killing a Palestinian policeman, witnesses said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

In Bethlehem on Thursday, Israeli troops shot dead one man and injured two others at the entrance to the Church of the Nativity as talks stalled over the fate of gunmen holed up inside. An army spokeswoman said the men were shot because they were spotted carrying guns.

Several hours after the shooting, peace activists with the International Solidarity Movement, and a Los Angeles Times photographer, eluded troops besieging the church and dashed, with their hands up, to its door. As one activist unfurled a banner saying "Free Palestine," the door swung open. Ten members of the group carried inside backpacks stuffed with rice, lentils, chocolate, sugar and other food.

The activists' presence promised to further complicate an already fraught impasse in which the Israeli army has encircled one of Christianity's most revered sites and confined thousands in the biblical town to their homes for a month.

Carolyn Cole, the Times photographer, said the Palestinians barricaded inside the church warmly received the activists and immediately began cooking a large pot of rice.

She said the men inside were broken up into small groups around the 4th century basilica, where they are sleeping on blankets spread on the stone floor. Cole said that windows inside the church had been shot out but that no serious damage was visible.

Arafat seemed obsessed with Bethlehem in the first hours after his own siege was lifted. He lashed out at Israel, which he blamed for two fires that erupted during a skirmish Wednesday at the church.

The Palestinians said those fires were ignited by Israeli flares shot into the compound during the fighting. The Israelis initially accused the Palestinians of setting the fires, but Col. Miri Eisen, an Israeli military intelligence officer, said Thursday that the army was checking the possibility that its flares had started the blazes.

In his inspection of Ramallah, Arafat paid quick visits to the Education Ministry, the sprawling Preventive Security complex and other Palestinian Authority buildings that Israeli forces destroyed or damaged. Palestinians have called Israeli actions a clear attempt to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"We will really have to rebuild from zero," said Salah Zuheikeh, a senior official in Arafat's Fatah movement. He stood amid the rubble of Arafat's headquarters, where repeated Israeli bombardment, tank fire and bulldozing had smashed nearly every structure. Inside a garage, Israeli soldiers had methodically attacked each of Arafat's six Mercedes-Benzes and three Jeep Cherokees.

At the Ramallah Hospital and its adjacent Sheik Zayed Hospital, Arafat greeted members of his bodyguard unit who were wounded in fighting. Dr. Samir Saliba said the 72-year-old Palestinian leader looked tired and pale, having lost weight, but that his overall health seemed good.

The virtual destruction of the Palestinian Authority and Arafat's desire to rebuild have helped fuel new demands for major reform in a regime widely viewed as corrupt and inefficient.

"No one can know what Abu Amar is thinking," Saliba said, using Arafat's nom de guerre, "but everyone on the street is demanding new faces and new blood."

In another development Thursday, the Israeli prime minister's office said that Marwan Barghouti, the top Fatah commander in the West Bank, who was captured by Israeli forces last month, has told his interrogators that Arafat personally approved attacks on Israelis.

In a statement, the prime minister's office said Barghouti told Israel's Shin Bet secret service that when a militiaman wanted to carry out an attack, he had to fill out a detailed request and hand it in to Barghouti. He would sign it and pass it along to Arafat for final approval, the statement said. Also, Arafat had to approve every outlay of funds, whatever the amount.

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