Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared an unfettered war yesterday on terrorism, which he blamed directly on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, as Israeli fighter jets and helicopters pounded Palestinian cities and towns.
Amid a raging government debate over whether to oust Arafat from power and expel him from the region, Sharon”s Cabinet early today pronounced the Palestinian Authority a “terror-supporting entity,” setting the stage for further retaliations. Army troops and tanks thrust deep into several Palestinian cities overnight, advancing in the West Bank city of Ramallah to within 200 yards of Arafat”s headquarters, where the Palestinian president was spending the night.
With the Middle East teetering on the brink of new disaster, Israel also launched strikes elsewhere in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Israeli gunships hit Arafat”s Gaza City headquarters yesterday and destroyed two of his personal helicopters. The Israelis called the aircraft symbols of his sovereignty and freedom.
Also in Gaza, Israeli bulldozers plowed the runways of the Palestinian international airport, which was opened three years ago amid great fanfare as the crowning jewel of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. A senior Israeli official said the airport was rendered unusable, “turning it into a flourishing greenhouse.”
The air raids and incursions were just the beginning of what Sharon promised will be a broad campaign of retaliation for a trio of suicide bombings and a shooting that killed 26 people, all but one of them Israeli Jews, and wounded more than 200 over the weekend. But his goals seem to go further than simple retaliation. Palestinian officials said the new offensive was a declaration of war not on terrorism but on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.
Sharon went on national television yesterday evening to hold Arafat “directly responsible” for all attacks against Israel, which were part of what the prime minister called a concerted crusade to destroy the Jewish state.
He branded Arafat a terrorist and “the biggest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East” in the past, the present and most likely the future. And he indicated he had received the blessing of President Bush to fight terror with all the means at Israel”s disposal.
Palestinian officials said Sharon”s comments were bellicose. Arafat called for an urgent meeting of the world”s largest Muslim body, the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Qatari news agency reported.
Among Israelis, there is a growing clamor to topple Arafat. The Israeli Cabinet went into emergency session last night, following Sharon”s speech, to decide on the actions to take. Several ministers said beforehand that they would advocate expelling Arafat.
But the Cabinet is divided on this point, and ultimately Sharon”s need to keep his broad coalition government together probably will stop such a drastic move. Most analysts see attempting to remove Arafat as impractical, if not impossible, and certainly counterproductive. Shimon Peres, Israel”s dovish foreign minister, is among those who warn that the radical Islamic Hamas movement might be the force to rise to replace Arafat, sweeping away any chance for dialogue.
The Israeli government”s strategy is to repeatedly attack the symbols of Arafat”s leadership to weaken him further until he loses power, analysts said.
The Cabinet meeting ended early today in disarray. Ministers from Peres” Labor Party walked out rather than vote on the resolution that declared the Palestinian Authority a terror-supporting entity. Sharon”s spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the resolution effectively prohibits any negotiations with the Palestinians, including recently restarted security-cooperation talks.