TOPICS > Politics

Under Siege: Israeli Siege of Yasser Arafat’s Headquarters

September 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Joining me from Jerusalem is Serge Schmemann, a correspondent for the New York Times. Well, it’s late night in Israel and the West Bank. Has anything changed at the siege site in the last several hours?

SERGE SCHMEMANN: Nothing has really changed at the siege site. The Israeli bulldozers have largely completed their task of demolishing all the buildings around Arafat’s headquarters, and they have somehow continued to pressure him, to put psychological pressure, either cutting off water or electricity, or allowing food or not allowing food. But otherwise, the situation there remains pretty much the same since it began Thursday night.

RAY SUAREZ: As buildings were destroyed, people vacated them and started to cluster in the remaining intact portions of the compound. Do we know how many people are with Chairman Arafat in the Ramallah compound now?

SERGE SCHMEMANN: We hear from Arafat’s people that there are about 250; from the Israelis, about 200. So the number is somewhere between 200 and 250. The Israelis say 38 security men surrendered early in their operation, but these were none of the wanted men on their list. The list has about, we’re told, 50 people, but so far, Arafat has refused to surrender any of them. So about anywhere from 200 to 250 men are in there with him.

RAY SUAREZ: So the Israelis maintain that these wanted men, that they know them to be in there, or are these men generally wanted, and Israel wants to check whether they’re in there?

SERGE SCHMEMANN: Well, there is some debate about that, because Israel says that it wants these men. At the same time, you know, they have asked today Arafat to give them a list of men in there with them. So there is a question whether they know specifically who is in there. I think the general feeling is here that the operation is against Arafat and not specifically to nab these men. During the last operation there in spring, Israel made a similar demand, but then the men were assassins of an Israeli minister.

This time these are men who have not been arrested up now, who have not figured prominently on wanted lists, and although I’m sure Israel would like to get them, I think the focus of this operation is Arafat himself– to isolate him, to make his conditions so horrible that he will want to leave, that he will want, perhaps, to go into exile. He, of course, has been adamant in insisting that he will not leave, that he will not leave either his headquarters, and certainly not the Palestinian lands. But it is a large question whether the demand for these men is really the primary focus of this operation.

RAY SUAREZ: Now confined to just a few small rooms in one building on the West Bank, does Yasser Arafat really run anything? Is he the head of a government, or now just a man with symbolic power and a cell phone?

SERGE SCHMEMANN: Well, first of all, it’s more than a few small rooms. He still has the run, I understand, of three floors in that building. Again, there have been varying reports about how much space he has. The fact of the matter is that since… for several months now, he has been totally isolated in his compound, as most of the structures of the Palestinian Authority have been destroyed. The police forces, the security forces, there is no sense that he has had day-to-day operations. I mean, he still has his telephone. He has his aides. He has his symbolic authority.

But before this operation began, we were witnessing the beginnings of a Palestinian… almost you’d call it a rebellion against him. The Palestinian legislative council demanded that he accept the resignations of all his cabinet ministers. He did. There was a lot of talk of naming an executive prime minister, Abu Mazin. Now all these things are on ice. And Arafat’s symbolic authority, at the very least, has been enhanced by these measures. There have been mass demonstrations in Ramallah and other West Bank cities in his support. But, you know, as for operational authority, that has certainly been reduced almost to nothing.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States has been communicating with the Sharon government. What has it been telling it, and what has the Israeli government had to say publicly in response?

SERGE SCHMEMANN: The American government has shown some displeasure with this operation from the beginning, and that has been escalating, because there is obviously a sense in Washington that what goes on here interferes with the preparations for the war on Iraq. And the Americans were also, I think, quite interested in the first stirrings of reform among the Palestinians. And what they’ve been telling Sharon is that this operation is a serious setback to those reform efforts, and today they became even more explicit about this, saying that this really is not helpful for a process that had just begun.

Of course, the United States is now faced with a Security Council resolution that it may have to veto, which it certainly doesn’t want to do, since it would like to get United Nations support for the operation in Iraq. So I think there is a general sense in Washington that this is really hindering them. So far the Israelis have been saying that they will continue until these wanted men surrender, until they achieve their ends, but in the past, Prime Minister Sharon has in general acceded to American demands when they become stirred enough.

RAY SUAREZ: You mention the American concern about the first stirrings of reform among the Palestinians. Wasn’t Yasser Arafat in the process of installing a new Palestinian government?

SERGE SCHMEMANN: That’s right. On September 11, the Palestinian Legislative Council voted… was prepared to vote no confidence in the cabinet, and to forestall that Arafat accepted their resignation. Under Palestinian rules, that gave them two weeks to name a new cabinet. Now, of course, it will be virtually impossible to meet that deadline, but we still hear reports that Abu Mazin, the man most frequently named as a potential prime minister, has been in meeting with other members of the Palestinian leadership, specifically of Fatah, which is Yasser Arafat’s movement to try to continue with this process.

I think most Palestinians would really prefer if this process not be side railed at this time, because they very much still hope to hold elections on January 20. Now, whether that’s possible or not is anybody’s guess. I think most people would bet that it can’t happen in these circumstances and in that short period of time. But certainly the Palestinians felt they had a momentum and they’d like to maintain it. So the process is continuing, but not on the timetable that had been set on September 11.

RAY SUAREZ: Serge Schmemann from Jerusalem, thanks a lot.