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Israelis Isolate Arafat, Palestinians Wary of Motivation - 2002-03-29

Israeli tanks have plowed into Yasser Arafat's West Bank office compound in Ramallah and heavy fighting was reported there all day Friday. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declared the Palestinian leader an enemy and says he will isolate Mr. Arafat as part of a campaign to end terrorist attacks against Israelis. But Palestinians see more sinister motivations in the Israeli military action.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel says Israel's recent policy of restraint cannot continue in the face of non-stop deadly suicide bombings. More than 30 people have died over the past four days in such incidents and in terrorist attacks against Israelis.

"We have finally reached a stage in which we cannot continue like this," he said. "No government, no country that we know can agree to have its citizens put in such peril and such danger. And we have decided to launch a military attack against Yasser Arafat to isolate him and to take other measures against the Palestinian terror infrastructure to force them to stop their attacks against Israelis."

Israeli tanks and troops crashed through the walls of Palestinian leader Arafat's office compound in Ramallah on Friday after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared him an enemy.

Israeli diplomat Aryeh Mekel says the military operations will continue to try to weed out Palestinian terrorists.

"There is no limit to this. It's not a matter of days, it's a matter of enforcing a situation in which Israelis and Jews will no longer be in any peril in their own land," he said.

Israeli officials insist the military assault on Mr. Arafat's headquarters is not aimed at harming him personally. Palestinian officials are not convinced.

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says Israel is out to kill Mr. Arafat. Other Palestinian officials warn that Israel wants to reoccupy lands in the West Bank and Gaza, which were passed to Palestinian control under the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib says Prime Minister Sharon is trying to reverse any gains of the peace process.

"He is working on dismantling the Palestinian Authority, which is another product of Oslo," he said. "And he is working gradually but systematically toward reversing the situation into the pre-peace process situation."

Mr. Khatib says Prime Minister Sharon's efforts to isolate and discredit Mr. Arafat have backfired.

"They have been imposing a siege on Arafat for the past three weeks. This did not reduce his role. This did not make him irrelevant," he said. "On the contrary, Arafat has become more significant and more important because the point here is not the physical movement, it's the political weight and political role. And, as long as the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause are relevant, the leader of the Palestinians and the symbol of their cause will remain always relevant."

Israeli official Aryeh Mekel says his government does not consider Mr. Arafat a credible peace partner. He points out that Mr. Arafat has not ordered an end to militant attacks against Israel despite U.S. and Israeli demands to do so.

U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni has been trying for two weeks to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian fighting. On Thursday, Mr. Arafat said he would accept the so-called Tenet cease-fire plan that was put forth last year - without alternations. But that put into question Mr. Zinni's latest compromise proposal, which Israel had reluctantly accepted.

As the fighting rages at Mr. Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, the goal of a cease-fire now appears more elusive than ever.