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Israelis Pull Back After 10-Day Siege

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Israelis Pull Back After 10-Day Siege at Arafat's Complex

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Sept. 29 – A beaming Yasser Arafat, flanked by euphoric Palestinian government employees, emerged briefly today from the only building left standing in his pulverized compound here as Israel ended a 10-day siege under mounting pressure from the United States.

Israeli tanks and armored vehicles rumbled out of the Palestinian Authority's battered headquarters at 2 p.m. today, hours after an Israeli cabinet decision to pull back. The decision followed an intense round of telephone calls from senior members of the Bush administration, expressing concern that the siege was hobbling U.S. efforts to build support in the Arab world for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.

"The president welcomes this development," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Crawford, Tex., where President Bush was spending the weekend at his ranch. "All parties need to live up to their responsibilities to promote peace, stability and reform in the Palestinian Authority."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also had been hammered in the domestic press in recent days. Critics said he had rallied support among Palestinians for Arafat, who less than three weeks ago accepted the resignation of his cabinet rather than face a "no-confidence vote" by the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The Israeli attack on the compound began Sept. 19, hours after a suicide bombing on a crowded bus in the heart of Tel Aviv killed six people and the bomber.

Arafat, addressing reporters who crammed into his office minutes after the tanks allowed access to the compound, described the withdrawal as "cosmetic," adding: "This is not withdrawal. This is only moving a few meters away. They are trying to deceive the world."

In a handwritten statement read by his spokesman on the steps of his office building, Arafat renewed his call for withdrawal from all of Ramallah and five other West Bank cities that remain under Israeli occupation.

Arafat, looking pale but wearing a broad smile, then came out of the building, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd of several hundred chanting Palestinians who had quickly gathered to celebrate the Israeli departure. Without public comment, Arafat quickly ducked back inside the building he has seldom left since the Israeli military first attacked the compound in late March. Aides said he then took a nap.

But many of the Palestinian government employees – most of them members of various security and police forces – jostled their way out of the building, ecstatic with relief after 10 days of living with food and water shortages in jammed rooms thick with the stench of unwashed bodies, backed-up toilets and heaps of moldering garbage.

"The situation was very tragic," said Tareq, a 28-year-old bodyguard for Arafat who asked that his full name not be used. "Trash was piled up, there was no water, no phone lines, people could not breathe fresh air, tanks were making noises all around us all the time, the bulldozer was shaking the building. We were awake 24 hours, we did not sleep."

Every man interviewed said the most stressful moments came last week when Israeli soldiers announced on loudspeakers that occupants had 10 minutes to vacate the building before it would be destroyed. Everyone with access to a cell phone called to bid farewell to their loved ones, they said.

"When they gave us the ultimatum I read from the Koran and called my mother," said Ibrahim Khalal Allah, 27, who has served on the Palestinian special police force for three years. "I said, 'A martyr does not die, so don't be sad.'‚" My mother cried and said, 'May we meet in paradise.'‚"

An estimated 200 to 250 people were holed up in Arafat's building; many of them scrambled inside after their own office buildings came under attack. Most of them were members of various Palestinian security forces, living in the complex because of curfews imposed by Israel across the West Bank. Others trapped in the building included senior Arafat advisers and former cabinet members who were attending meetings when Israeli forces sealed the compound.

Among Israelis, the debate continued over the government's decision to attack and cordon off Arafat's complex.

Israeli authorities earlier had demanded that Arafat arrest or surrender individuals they accused of terrorist acts who were believed to be inside the building. The Israelis identified in particular Tawfiq Tirawi, the head of the Palestinians' general intelligence services for the West Bank, and Mahmoud Damra, chief of Force 17, Arafat's security service in Ramallah.

Arafat refused to comply and today senior Palestinian officials declined to divulge the location of either official, but said Tirawi was not inside the compound.

Zeev Sternhell, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said: "This government did not surrender to the international community, but to the American pressure. The whole thing is the Iraqi issue and not the Palestinian one."

The U.N. Security Council had passed a resolution calling for Israel to end the siege. Sharon at first refused. The move appeared to complicate U.S. efforts to build support – especially in the Arab world – for a new U.N. Security Council resolution against Iraq.

Bush's pressure to end the siege at Arafat's complex, which included a personal message delivered by the U.S. ambassador to Israel as well as telephone calls from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, came three months after he suggested that Palestinians replace Arafat as their leader.

Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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