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Mideast Violence Continues to Spiral

March 10, 2002

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli helicopters destroyed Yasser Arafat’s seaside office in Gaza City early Sunday, hours after an Islamic militant blew himself up and killed 11 people in a crowded cafe across the street from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Jerusalem residence.

``We are in a war,″ Sharon told his Cabinet. ``All of us must stay united and make every effort to stand up to this wave of terror.″

The Israeli leader said he was prepared to enter negotiations with the Palestinians on a cease-fire, but Israel would not halt its military actions against militants. ``If the terror continues, our operations will continue,″ he said.

With the violence surging, the United States is pushing for a cease-fire, and U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni is expected in the region later this week. The United States has called on the Israelis to exercise restraint, and Sharon has dropped his demand for a week of complete calm before moving forward with a U.S. truce plan.

Palestinians, meanwhile, said the Jerusalem bombing and a shooting attack at a seafront hotel in Netanya, both on Saturday night, were in response to Israel’s stepped up military campaign against the Palestinians, including raids in several refugee camps, considered strongholds of militants.

``This is the normal response from the Palestinian resistance for all the Israelis have done in the refugee camps, to Palestinian civilians, women and children,″ said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top adviser to Arafat. ``The Israelis have to expect such operations whenever they escalate their military attacks against our civilians.″

In the worst spate of violence since the fighting began 17 months ago, 121 Palestinians and 50 Israelis have been killed in the first 10 days of March.

On Saturday, 14 Israelis were killed, including 11 in the cafe bombing. On the Palestinian side, seven people were killed.

In a highly symbolic response to the Saturday night attacks, Israeli helicopters and gunboats fired at least 25 missiles at Arafat’s large Gaza City compound in the early hours of Sunday, collapsing most of the two-story office headquarters into a pile of rubble. The building had been evacuated earlier.

At his office, Arafat had received world leaders, including former President Clinton. Bricks and roof tiles were scattered on the ground and wires dangled from the ceiling.

An officer in Arafat’s personal security unit was weeping. ``This went from being a small social club to being the house of the nation, and look at it now,″ said Lt. Mohammed Youssef.

Arafat himself has been confined to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah for more than three months by Israeli forces.

In another Israeli strike in Gaza, warplanes on Sunday afternoon fired a missile at a Palestinian security building near Gaza City, touching off a large fire and causing extensive damage, Palestinian security sources said. The building is a communications center that controls the radio and walkie-talkie network used by police. No injuries were reported.

Elsewhere in Gaza, a Palestinian opened fire at Israelis at the gate of a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, wounding two men, one of them critically, before being shot to death. The Al Aqsa Brigades, a militia affiliated with Arafat’s Fatah party, took responsibility for the shooting.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Israeli troops at a checkpoint told an approaching Palestinian with a backpack to stop, military sources said. When he kept walking in the direction of the soldiers, they suspected he might be carrying a bomb and shot him, the sources said. He died of his wounds, Palestinian doctors said.

In the latest of several recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian refugee camps, soldiers searched house-to-house Sunday for militants in the Dheisheh refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem in the West Bank. However, Palestinian groups said militants fled the camp Saturday night after Israel tanks and other armored vehicles took up positions just outside.

Israel says its offensive is aimed at rooting out militants and seizing their weapons following a recent bombings and shootings against Israelis. But Palestinians say the Israelis have frequently fired indiscriminately, killing civilians and destroying homes and buildings that were not linked to the fighting.

Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai called for a nonstop war against the Palestinians. ``We must keep up the attacks by land, sea and air until they ask for a cease-fire,″ he told Israel TV.

Amid the spiraling violence, the United States, the Europeans and Arab leaders are all working on plans to calm the region. Yet expectations were guarded; Zinni’s previous two truce missions were scuttled by violence.

In the Jerusalem bombing, the assailant walked into the Moment cafe, frequented mostly by Israelis in their 20s, and detonated explosives at 10:30 p.m.

``There was a huge explosion, simply atomic,″ said one of the cafe’s patrons, who gave only his first name, Eran. ``There was smoke everywhere and an acrid smell of gunpowder. People were screaming. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.″

The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility, and identified the bomber as Fuad Horani, a resident of the Al Arroub refugee camp south of Bethlehem in the West Bank.

``Of course I am sad that my son was martyred, but he took revenge,″ said his mother Haldea Horani, surrounded by weeping women at the family home.

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