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Letter from Ramallah:  How Palestinians Cope With Israel's Curfews - 2002-09-25

The old man is one of many Palestinians passing this checkpoint on the northern outskirts of Ramallah. Today is a good day. He has been able to cross without difficulty.

He has been to visit his son in the hospital in Ramallah. It is not every day, I am able to go, he says, referring to the strict curfew the Israelis have put on this city for the past week. Now he is on his way back to his village behind the surrounding hills.

Very few cars pass through here. Most people cross the checkpoint on foot, some even on horseback.

In downtown Ramallah, life has returned to the streets, at least for the day. Israel lifted the curfew during part of the day, and people thronged into the streets, to do their shopping, greet neighbors or just walk about.

Israel has frequently imposed curfews on Ramallah and other Palestinian towns since the Intifada began two years ago.

The latest curfew was imposed last Thursday, after a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked a Tel Aviv bus, killing six passengers.

That was the day Israeli troops moved in on the "Mukata", Yasser Arafat's sprawling headquarters in Ramallah. The soldiers systematically blew up and bulldozed the buildings inside.

About all that is left is a huge field of rubble, twisted metal and chunks of broken cement. Barbed wire surrounds the perimeter of the compound and Israeli tanks block off all access.

One small building remains standing, where Mr. Arafat has taken refuge with about 200 of his aides and security guards.

Raad Abu Ali is a teacher in the Amaari refugee camp near Ramallah. He says he, like many Palestinians, is outraged by the Israeli siege of the Arafat compound.

"I feel this is an attack on my dignity, an attack on my symbol, because Arafat is representing the Palestinian people," he said. "Taking into consideration he was elected in a democratic way, it is an attack on democracy."

Rafaa Musmar, 23 agrees. She says Palestinians, whether they like Mr. Arafat or not, resent the humiliation of their leader.

"We are humiliated by the Israeli soldiers as civilians, our soldiers are humiliated, so why now our leader too? It is something hard to feel," he said.

The siege is in its seventh day, with Israeli troops surrounding the compound and defying a U.N. resolution to withdraw.

Israel is demanding the surrender of Mr. Arafat's men, some of whom are wanted by Israel for involvement in terror attacks. Mr. Arafat has refused to surrender any of the suspects.

Israeli officials say they will not comply with the U.N. resolution until the Palestinians observe the resolution's demand to stop terror attacks and bring those responsible to justice.