Witnesses told Reuters at least 14 missiles have hit buildings near Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza City, with some of them destroying helicopters sitting on a launch pad.
Two of Arafat’s helicopters were destroyed in the attack, while a large fire has been seen burning near Arafat’s headquarters. The missiles also struck buildings that housed offices of Palestinian security units, reports said.
Arafat was in the West Bank city of Ramallah at the time, Palestinian officials said. There has been no immediate word on casualties at the Gaza compound.
Israeli leaders focused blame on Arafat for the weekend’s bomb attacks in Israel that killed 26 people and wounded some 200 others.
Two nearly simultaneous blasts rocked a Jerusalem pedestrian mall Saturday night, killing 10 and wounding 150. Less than 12 hours later, a suicide bomber blew up a bus in the city of Haifa. Israeli authorities said at least 16 people were killed and 40 wounded in that attack.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli President Ariel Sharon told CNN that today’s missile attacks in Gaza were “intended to send a very clear signal [that] wither Arafat … will fight terrorism or we will have to do it.
“It was not an attack on the home or the compound of Mr. Arafat,” he said, “but on the helicopter and helicopter landing pad.”
In a change from past calls for restraint, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Israel “has the right to defend itself and [President Bush] understands that clearly.”
Fleischer said the president wants Arafat to step up his efforts to quell militant violence.
The president “has believed for quite a period of time that Yasser Arafat is capable of doing much more than he has ever done and now the burden is on him even heavier to show it,” Fleischer said.
But Palestinan officials said the Israeli strikes would only serve to undermine Arafat’s effectiveness at reigning in militant groups.
“The Palestinian Authority wants very much to end this, but they have to give the PA the possibility of doing it with dignity,” Palestinian Cabinet member Hisham Abdel Razek told Israel’s Channel 2 TV. The strike “means that Israel sees the PA as a target to be attacked. It wasn’t [Arafat’s] helicopters that carried out the [suicide] bombings.”