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dispatch from ramallah by stuart tanner

Stuart Tanner is a co-producer of FRONTLINE's "Battle for the Holy Land". He was in Ramallah filming background material when he found himself in the middle of this breaking news story.

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March 29, 2002 -- At first light this morning the streets of Ramallah rumbled with the sound of heavy armor moving into the city. Yesterday, the residents of the city filled the shops, stocking up on supplies. Everyone was expecting the invasion. Wednesday's suicide bombing in Netanya killed 22 Israelis and injured more than 100 as they were celebrating a Passover meal.

The scale of the losses and the timing of the attack guaranteed that there would be a very stern Israeli response. Late last night, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled that Israel was about to embark on an unprecedented level of reprisal. He declared that Yasser Arafat was "an enemy of Israel" and that "Israel will isolate Arafat and pursue the Palestinian Authority on all its territories."

We scrambled into our armored vehicle and drove through the deserted streets toward Arafat's compound. It wasn't long before we encountered the first group of tanks blocking one of the approach roads to the compound. We tried another route and again encountered rows of tanks and armored personnel carriers. We got out and started to film them. There were occasional bursts of gunfire, sounding just a few blocks away. The Palestinian militias were putting up some resistance.

Eventually we got to the front of the compound. It was surrounded by tanks. We walked past them and up to the main entrance. The large metal gates had been smashed down. A jeep lay crushed next to them; the tank tracks visible in the flattened metal. This time the Israeli army had gone inside.

We spotted Israeli soldiers looking out of the widows of the compound's buildings. The fighting here was over. The compound had been taken. Arafat, holed up in a windowless interior room inside one of the compound's buildings, was pinned by Israeli forces.

Later in the day Arafat declared that "Israel wants me a prisoner or they want me killed. But I will be a martyr. I hope that God will give me martyrdom."

Arafat is trapped in a couple of rooms in the compound with just two close aides at his side. There is speculation as to where it will go from here. Will Arafat be kept a prisoner here or perhaps be taken away to Israel? Nobody knows, but everyone is sure that this will do nothing to end the deepening cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

As if to confirm this view, news comes through of yet another suicide attack in Jerusalem. A young woman blew herself up at the entrance to a supermarket. Two Israelis were killed and 20 were injured. Some of her bombs failed to go off. The casualties would have been much higher if they had.

We moved around to the far side of the compound. An old man lay dead in the road, his body shattered by machine-gun fire. We stopped to take a closer look at him. He didn't seem to be a fighter; he had no weapon and no flak jacket. He had been killed within the hour. Israeli tanks moved past us and into the compound through gaps bulldozed in the perimeter wall. Gunfire started again from another part of the city.

We came across a large group of Tanzim, the armed militia of the Palestinian Authority. They had withdrawn out of range of the tanks. But as we spoke to them the Israeli soldiers took up positions in the streets close by. The Tanzim responded by starting to fire on their positions. We watched them step out into the street from behind the protection of a building and fire off a few shots at the Israeli soldiers. Each time they stepped out into the line of sight of well-positioned soldiers they were taking an extreme risk. They knew it, and hardly waited to take aimed shots.

As we watched, a Tanzim fighter was hit in the neck by a sniper and rolled onto the ground, dead. The other fighters picked him up and rushed him to the hospital in a car.

This fighting was only token resistance. It was more like watching men carry out desperate acts of bravado than one group of trained soldiers going up against another. Later, we learned that five Palestinians had been killed in the fighting this morning -- and the battle continued.

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