Daniel Grushkin

Israeli Forces Attack Palestinian Symbols of Power (AFP)

JERUSALEM, Dec 4 (AFP) - Israeli forces on Tuesday launched attacks on key Palestinian symbols of autonomy, including Gaza International Airport, as the authorities announced they were stepping up military operations against Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, appealed for an intervention from the UN Security Council after Israeli air strikes on Monday and accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of declaring war on the Palestinians.

Sharon’s government also placed Force-17, the armed group in charge of Arafat’s protection, as well as the Tanzim military groups of his Fatah faction on its list of terrorist organizations, a senior Israeli official said.

The decisions were taken in a five-hour marathon late-night session of the national unity government, said the official, who asked not to be named.

In a series of incursions and air strikes, the Israeli military targeted Arafat’s symbols of power, after holding him to account for a spate of deadly suicide bombings by Palestinian Islamic militants.

The Israeli army carried out reprisal attacks overnight against targets in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Israeli tanks advanced to around 500 meters (yards) from Arafat’s offices in the West Bank town of Ramallah early Tuesday, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces penetrated the airport used by Arafat for his travels abroad and started to churn up the only runway, a Palestinian liaison official said.

Sharon, blaming Arafat for the suicide bombings on Saturday and Sunday that killed 25 Israelis, earlier sent his air force to blast the Palestinian leader’s heliport in Gaza and offices in the West Bank town of Jenin.

The radical Islamic movement Hamas claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks.

Shortly after Apache combat helicopters struck Gaza City and F-16 fighter bombers hit Jenin, Sharon made a hard-hitting televised address, telling Israelis a “war of terrorism” had been foisted on the Jewish state.

"In choosing to try to win political accomplishments through murder and in choosing to allow the ruthless killing of civilians, Arafat has chosen the path of terrorism," Sharon said.

"Arafat is the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East," charged Sharon.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat called the speech a “declarationof war”, and appealed to Washington and Europe to act to stop the 14-month conflict between Israel and the Palestinians sliding into all-out war. The Palestinian leadership also urged the Security Council to intervene.

Arafat called for an emergency summit of Muslim leaders, as Arab states condemned the Israeli escalation and accused Sharon of trying to kill off any hope of reviving a peace process in the Middle East.

The Palestinian Authority insisted all factions respect a ceasefire with Israel, after the Islamic militant Hamas which claimed the suicide bombings warned that the Jewish state would pay a “high price” for the air strikes.

In Washington, the White House avoided criticizing the Israeli air strikes, citing the right to self-defense, and called on Arafat to show his commitment to peace “in actions, not words.”

At the US State Department, spokesman Philip Reeker said there was “no excuse” for Arafat not to take “immediate, comprehensive and sustained action … against both the individuals responsible and the infrastructure of the groups that support them.”

The White House, mindful of the need for Muslim support in its global war on terrorism, denied that Bush had given Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a “green light” for the attacks in a hastily rescheduled meeting in Washington on Sunday.

And Shimon Peres, Israel’s dovish foreign minister in a coalition led by right-wing hardliner Sharon, said the decision to bring peace to the Middle East rested squarely on the shoulders of Arafat.

"He has to decide not if he’s a partner or an enemy but if he’s the leader or not, because if he’s going to be a leader just of a small fraction of the Palestinian life, he will hardly be able to manage his affairs," he said on CNN.

The air strike on Gaza destroyed all three of Arafat’s personal helicopters and blew out the windows of his residence. Arafat himself was in Ramallah at the time of the attack.

Palestinian hospital officials said 17 people were treated for shock, smoke inhalation and minor injuries. In the West Bank self-rule town of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, a mysterious blast killed a Palestinian intelligence officer who was also a member of the Fatah movement.

The latest death raised to 1,046 the number of people killed since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation erupted in September 2000, including 801 Palestinians and 223 Israelis.

Israel was dismissive of Arafat’s hasty round-up of more than 100 Islamic militants since Sunday, when the Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency and vowed to jail anyone opposed to a truce with Israel. But a senior Palestinian security official in Gaza City said after the Israeli raids that the arrests of radicals would carry on and no Hamas members would be released.