Israeli forces completed their withdrawal from Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's Mukata compound in Ramallah last night, hours after the killers of Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evi and the PA financial adviser responsible for the Karine A weapons shipment were transferred to a Jericho prison.
A short statement issued by the army said, "IDF forces completed their operation tonight in Ramallah and have left the city." The army is maintaining a tight closure on the city to prevent potential terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.
The withdrawal ended Israel's siege of the compound, allowing Arafat to leave the building for the first time since Operation Defensive Shield began on March 29. Arafat, who has been confined to Ramallah since December, is expected to tour the West Bank and Gaza to evaluate damage caused by the Israeli military operation.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that if Arafat "goes abroad, and the terror attacks resume, we will consider whether to allow him to return" to the Palestinian territories.
The Israeli withdrawal from Ramallah came following a proposal by U.S. President George W. Bush, allowing for Arafat's free movement in exchange for the transfer of Ze'evi's killers to a prison where American and British wardens will guard them. Maariv reported that the American proposal also demanded Arafat's agreement to fight terror and end incitement against Israel.
"We now expect to see Arafat translate his words into deed and to actively fight terror emanating from his own society," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Sofer.
Speaking to reporters last night, Arafat preferred to address media attention to reports of a fire and gun battles at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. "How could the world possibly be silent about this atrocious crime," he said. "I don't care if this room I'm sitting in blows up. What concerns me is what is happening at the Church of the Nativity. This is a crime that cannot be forgiven."
Explosions and heavy gunfire were heard near the Bethlehem church last night, after which fires appeared in several locations. Israeli sources said gunmen inside the church shot at IDF positions, and that Palestinians then set fires in various areas around the church. Israeli spokesman Dore Gold said that Israel offered to send in firefighters, but Palestinians holed up in the church refused to allow this.
Palestinians accused Israel of causing the fire by firing flares at the Orthodox and Franciscan sections of the compound. Israeli spokesmen flatly denied Palestinian claims that soldiers were storming the church, saying there was no troop movement.
Four Palestinians were wounded during attempts to put out the blaze, which burned out after about half an hour.
Transfer of prisoners ends Ramallah stalemate
Hundreds of Palestinians reportedly lined the streets of Jericho as a dozen armored vehicles with diplomatic license plates arrived, transporting the six men from Ramallah to a Palestinian prison. The transfer of the men was delayed earlier in the day, when Arafat reneged on an earlier agreement to include Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) head Ahmed Saadat and PA financial adviser Fuad Shubaki with the other four men. Channel Two television reported that the United States exerted heavy pressure on Arafat to close the deal.
"It is not possible that senior officials like these should be imprisoned with the same conditions as the rest of the prisoners," a senior Palestinian official said, quoted in Maariv.
While the other four men were sentenced to jail terms by a makeshift Palestinian military tribunal, Saadat and Shubaki have yet to be tried. A senior Palestinian official told Yediot that the two men would be tried within ten days, and if found "innocent," they would be released.
The official claimed that Palestinian security forces only detained Saadat in order to pressure the PFLP to turn over Ze'evi's assassins. Saadat was a political leader, not a military commander, the official claimed.
Army Radio reported that despite the Palestinians' feeling of "victory" for having stood off Israel's siege of Arafat in Ramallah, Arafat's standing was harmed when he bowed down to Israeli and American pressure to turn over Saadat and Shubaki.
Ellis Shuman Israelinsider