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Sharon Orders Israeli Troops to Withdraw From Arafat’s Compound

Several Israeli Cabinet ministers told the Associated Press that Israel did not anticipate the strong U.S. opposition to the siege, as well as its concern that the Israeli moves could hinder efforts to build a coalition of support for potential U.S. military action against Iraq.

Sharon is subsequently facing harsh criticism within Israel for bowing to U.S. pressure to withdraw the troops and then immediately departing for three days of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

“When we made the [siege] decision two weeks ago we did not anticipate to what extent America had already started its countdown to an attack on Iraq, that it would get into a confrontation with the U.N. and Europe,” Israeli Housing Minister Natan Sharansky told Israeli radio. “The decision was made in haste, and this is the result.”

Violence continued to flare Monday in the West Bank city of Nablus as Israeli troops enforcing a curfew killed an 11-year-old Palestinian boy and wounded 25 others after several of the youngsters threw stones and firebombs at the Israeli troops. And later in the day, a fierce gunfight erupted in downtown Nablus after gunmen apparently opened fire on the Israeli troops and the soldiers returned fire, according to media reports.

The 10-day siege on Arafat’s embattled compound began Sept. 19 in response to a Tel Aviv bus bombing that killed six people. Israeli troops demolished all but one building of the compound and demanded the surrender of dozens of Palestinian suspects allegedly hiding with Arafat. During the siege, Israeli forces also waged their deepest incursion into Gaza City in two years, leading thousands of Palestinians to demonstrate in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza in support of the Palestinian leader.

Newspapers in the region characterized the Israeli pullback as a victory for Arafat and roundly criticized Sharon’s decision to order the withdrawal.

“All Israel has succeeded in doing is proving that…the U.S. president is still willing to be seen protecting Arafat from Israel,” the Jerusalem Post said in a Sunday editorial. “All this is, no doubt, a Pyrrhic victory on Arafat’s part, because all it really signifies is that he is untouchable while the U.S. is busy preparing to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.”

Arafat emerged from the remains of his sandbagged compound Sunday, defiantly flashing the V-for-victory sign and blowing kisses to a crowd of supporters. The Palestinian leader told reporters that the Israelis still hadn’t complied with last week’s emergency U.N. resolution, which called for troops to pull back from Palestinian areas in addition to ending the siege.

“This is not withdrawal,” Arafat said. “This is only moving a few meters away. They are trying to deceive the world.”

International concern over the Israeli siege prompted an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council last week and the passage of an emergency resolution demanding that Israel end its raid on Arafat’s compound. The resolution also called on the Palestinian Authority to see that those responsible for past suicide bombing attacks on Israel are brought to justice. The U.S. abstained on the vote for the resolution, effectively letting the measure pass.

Sharon received a welcome boost from Putin at the start of their talks in the Kremlin Monday when the Russian leader said, “We welcome your decision to lift the siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters,” and added, “I believe this decision was difficult to take.”