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Israel Defends Siege of Arafat Hq, Calls It Prelude to His Political Demise

Israeli officials say the renewed siege on Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound presages the Palestinian Authority president’s impending downfall.

Israeli troops encircled the compound and demolished nearly all the buildings there after a string of Palestinian terror attacks last week left nine people dead.

The action drew international protests. The United States said the Israeli siege was “not helpful” to efforts to reduce terrorist violence and advance peacemaking.

U.S. officials reportedly fear the siege could overshadow their efforts to build an international coalition to attack Iraq.

But even as the U.N. Security Council met Monday for a debate about the siege, Israeli officials expressed satisfaction with what they described as a muted international reaction.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Yehuda Lancry, said the reaction reflects the growing international realization that Arafat should be replaced.

Unlike the strong outcry following Israel’s blockade of the compound last spring, “This time the impression is that the Europeans are paying lip service to defend Arafat, but not more than that,” the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot quoted Lancry as saying.

Lancry defended the siege before the Security Council.

“Inside the leadership compound in Ramallah are 50 individuals who have planned, funded and orchestrated scores of terrorist attacks and who are responsible for countless deaths of innocent civilians,” he said.

“Rather than take action against those it knows to be complicit in acts of terrorism, the Palestinian Authority, in its headquarters, grants them immunity and protects them,” he said.

While stressing it had no intention of physically harming Arafat, the Israeli government said the siege has two goals: to further isolate Arafat and to force the Palestinians to hand over the suspected terrorists holed up with him.

The siege is code-named “A Matter of Time.” According to Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, the name refers to Arafat’s imminent exile.

“He’s finished, and he has no place left in the Middle East,” Hanegbi told Israel Radio.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres vigorously disagrees, saying that exiling Arafat would only increase his support.

On Monday, Israeli and Palestinian officials met to discuss ways to end the siege.

Following the discussions, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met with Arafat at the compound in Ramallah. Erekat later said Arafat refused Israel’s demand to supply a list of those holed up with him.

Israel began the demolitions at the compound on Sept. 19, hours after a suicide bombing killed six aboard a Tel Aviv bus.

Some 50 of them are wanted for their involvement in terrorism, Israeli officials say.

Palestinian demonstrators defied curfews in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest the siege. Four protestors were killed in clashes with Israeli troops Saturday night.

Israel accused Arafat and his aides of using Palestinian radio and television broadcasts to incite Palestinians to take to the streets.

On Monday, Palestinians observed a strike in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest the siege.

Critics said Israel had unwittingly revived support for Arafat just as he was coming under widespread criticism for poor leadership and for condoning corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

But there also were indications that Arafat still faced stiff domestic pressure.

On Monday, a group of Palestinians reportedly discussed having Arafat’s deputy become prime minister. Under the plan, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, would assume the position in a power-sharing arrangement with Arafat.

Arafat is believed to oppose the idea.

Israel’s Army Radio said Monday’s meeting reflected the rise of “an alternative Palestinian leadership to Yasser Arafat, although none of the participants would acknowledge this.”

The report quoted Palestinian sources as saying that the meetings, which included Abbas, were held with Israel’s knowledge and consent.

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