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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 that 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, 120 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. Among the dead in the Netanya attack was a baby girl. On the Palestinian side, seven people were killed, including a 15-year-old girl and several assailants.

In new violence Sunday, 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 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 early Sunday, collapsing most of the two-story office headquarters to 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.

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.

In a leaflet, Hamas said Saturday’s blast was ``the beginning of retaliatory activities for Sharon’s war on the (Palestinian) refugee camps.″

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.

The Jerusalem cafe blast came just two hours after two Palestinian gunmen tossed grenades and opened fire at a seafront hotel in Netanya. Two Israelis, including a baby, were killed and more than 30 people were wounded, covering the hotel lobby and the sidewalk outside with blood.

Police chased the two Palestinians and shot them dead in front of a second hotel nearby, Israeli authorities said. The Al Aqsa Brigades claimed responsibility for the attack.

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 took up positions just outside.

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

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