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Sharon Criticized for Siege of Arafat Compound - 2002-09-30

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has come under sharp criticism for ordering the siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters. Israel ended the siege Sunday, after coming under what has been described in the media as intense U.S. pressure. Israeli commentators are describing the operation as a "colossal failure."

The Israeli media has judged that Mr. Sharon grossly miscalculated when he decided to lay siege to Mr. Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israeli troops entered the site 11 days ago and destroyed most of the once sprawling complex, in the wake of two Palestinian suicide bombings.

The soldiers were ordered to withdraw from the compound on Sunday, but were told to remain close by in order to capture wanted Palestinians who were trapped along with Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Sharon made the move in response to U.S. pressure. U.S. officials apparently feared that the siege would escalate regional tension and undermine efforts to build international support for a war against Iraq.

Israeli commentator Hemi Shalev wrote in the Ma'ariv newspaper that Mr. Sharon is "leaving behind a colossal failure, the most notable failure since the beginning of his term in office."

The military affairs correspondent for the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz, Ze'ev Schiff, says Mr. Sharon acted out of anger in the aftermath of the suicide bombings. "The anger was leading the decision. It was clear that the Americans would not like it. Arafat is much more popular," Mr. Schiff wrote.

Sever Plotzker, writing in the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, also believes the siege had ended in failure. He says the goals of the operation were "unclear from the outset" and the reasons for imposing the siege were "dubious." Mr. Plotzker writes that "emotions and not reason were at work here; in the war against terror, emotions are always an obstacle."

Some members of Mr. Sharon's cabinet also spoke out publicly, saying the whole episode had been a big mistake.

Housing Minister Natan Sharanksy said the Israeli Cabinet had failed to take into account that the United States had "already started counting down to the strike against Iraq."

"The decision was made in haste, and this is the result," he added.

Mr. Sharon was not in Israel to deal directly with the criticism. He is on a visit to Russia.

While criticism of Mr. Sharon appeared to be universal in the Israeli press, the situation in the Palestinian territories remains less clear.

Israeli troops have moved outside of Mr. Arafat's devastated compound but they are not far away. And the entire city of Ramallah remains under Israeli military curfew.

The Israeli soldiers have been ordered to capture any wanted Palestinian who may still be inside Mr. Arafat's offices.

Mr. Arafat, while basking in a public relations victory after the Israeli withdrawal from his compound, says the standoff is far from over.