Israeli Tanks Circle Arafat’s Office
%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:AGAZ102-060502; AUDIO:%)
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Israeli tanks stormed into the West Bank and surrounded Yasser Arafat’s office early Thursday, hours after a Palestinian blew up a huge car bomb next to a bus and killed 17 Israeli passengers.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers took positions outside the Palestinian leader’s Ramallah office but did not enter, witnesses and Palestinian officials said. Israeli military sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Israeli forces had surrounded Arafat’s headquarters, and there were exchanges of fire between soldiers and Palestinians. Arafat was believed to be inside his office.
The suicide bombing near the northern city of Megido was carried out by an attacker in an explosives-laden car moving in tandem with the bus _ the first such attack in 20 months of bloodshed.
The Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility and said the attack was timed to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1967 Mideast War, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians.
The military warned that Palestinians were shifting tactics to kill more Israelis each time they strike.
The terror group said the bomber, Hamza Samudi, was from the West Bank town of Jenin, and Israel responded by sending tanks there on Wednesday _ and then later into Ramallah.
The suicide bomber was 16, a relative said, making him one of the youngest bombers to strike Israel.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing in a statement that for the first time underscored it had no advance knowledge of the attack. Palestinian officials said they were under orders to arrest members of the group.
In Israel, there were growing calls for the army to reoccupy the West Bank and to move against Islamic Jihad headquarters in the Gaza Strip.
Indicating that Israel would hit back, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon delayed his departure for the United States after the bombing attack. Sharon was due to leave Thursday for talks in New York before meeting President Bush in Washington on Monday. Sharon put off his departure until Saturday night, a statement from his office said.
There has been speculation in Israeli media that another major Palestinian terror attack would bring the Israeli government to a decision to expel Arafat.
Israeli officials blamed Arafat for the bombing, charging that he has done nothing to stop the attacks. Some Cabinet ministers called for Arafat’s expulsion.
At the beginning of a large-scale invasion of the West Bank on March 29, following an earlier string of Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli tanks crashed through the outer wall of the large compound and surrounded Arafat’s office, trapping the Palestinian leader inside for 34 days.
In a harsh statement, the White House condemned the suicide attack and said it raised questions anew about Arafat’s relevance to the Middle East peace process.
``In the president’s eyes, Yasser Arafat has never played a role of someone who can be trusted or effective,″ presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Wednesday’s blast went off at about 7:20 a.m. near Megiddo _ the Hebrew word for Armageddon, scene of the final battle between good and evil in the Book of Revelations.
``In the blink of an eye, I saw a car passing and then there was an explosion,″ said Sharon Levinger, a soldier who was in the front of the bus. Bus driver Mickey Harel, who survived three previous attacks, said he felt his bus ``leap and then turn over.″
Passengers were hurled onto the pavement as the bus tumbled; others, including a man and woman embracing in their final moments, died trapped in the burning vehicle. Body parts and personal belongings scattered well away from the bus as rescue workers in white overalls collected human remains.
The soldiers killed in the attack were in their late teens and early 20s. Thirty-eight other people were hurt, 10 seriously. The attacker was also killed.
It was the deadliest attack since Israel ended its six-week offensive in the West Bank last month. The mission underscored the ability of suicide bombers to strike despite the arrest and killing of many of their number during and after the Israeli incursion.
The attack also came a day after CIA chief George Tenet met Arafat to press him to carry out reforms that would make his security apparatus more effective in preventing terror attacks. Arafat presented a reform plan, but Israeli media reports said Tenet considered it insufficient.
A Palestinian official said Tenet warned Arafat that if the Palestinian leader did not prevent terror attacks, he would stand alone in facing Israeli reprisals _ an apparent threat that the United States would give Sharon a freer hand in retaliating.
Sharon convened his security Cabinet after the attack. Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said that ``there will be no sanctuary and no safe haven for any terrorist.″
Several ministers have demanded that Israel expel Arafat, and Israeli President Moshe Katsav demanded the international community cut off all ties with him.
The bombing and the expected Israeli reprisal were likely to complicate U.S. efforts to formulate a Mideast initiative, including a proposed regional conference with the aim of restarting peace talks. A Bush administration official said the United States hoped to organize the meeting in Turkey to reopen talks that were frozen in January 2001, days before Sharon was elected.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was to be in Washington Friday for a meeting with Bush.
Reuven Paz, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, said the use of a car allowed terrorists to use more explosives than in the typical suicide bombing where attackers wear explosives belts.
Palestinian security officials said two dozen armored vehicles drove into Jenin from three directions. Two attack helicopters fired machine guns toward one neighborhood, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Israeli forces have surrounded most Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank, and make almost daily raids to go after suspected terrorists. Checkpoints dot the West Bank and Gaza, severely restricting movement for most Palestinians.
Still, Palestinian bombers have been able to carry out dozens of bombing attacks inside Israel since the current Mideast fighting erupted in September 2000. This week, the government announced plans to build a fence along part of the border in an effort to keep them out.
The army spokesman warned Israelis that Palestinian miitants were adopting new tactics, and said Palestinians had planned to release lethal cyanide gas as part of a suicide bombing in March that killed 29 Israelis. Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey said the gas was not used because of technical difficulties.
He said plans to employ the poison were part of continuing efforts by Palestinians to carry out what he termed a ``mega attack.″
Last month, Palestinians detonated a bomb under a tank truck as it was refueling at Israel’s largest fuel depot. The explosion burned the truck’s cabin, but did not spread to other vehicles or the huge fuel containers. Israeli officials said they recently thwarted plans to park an explosives-filled truck under twin high-rise buildings in Tel Aviv.