Fear pervades Palestinian homes under Israeli siege

Monday, April 1, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- This city used to be a Palestinian success story, a bustling commercial hub top-heavy with academics and professionals. On Sunday, two days after Israeli troops and tanks swept in, Ramallah looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane.

Broken glass and shattered concrete crunched underfoot. The streets were dotted with the flattened wrecks of cars -- some of them luxury models like BMWs -- that had been smashed by advancing tanks. Lampposts and signposts leaned at crazy angles. Water gushed from broken mains, flooding across pavement chewed up by tank treads.

Israel's principal target so far has been the stone compound of Yasser Arafat, where troops punched their way through the perimeter walls, moved in tanks and cornered the Palestinian leader together with about 100 aides -- punishing him, Israeli officials said, for a relentless wave of suicide bombings.

At least 15 people were killed Sunday and scores injured in the latest suicide attack, a powerful blast that ripped through an eatery in the port city of Haifa.

While the 3-day-old siege of Arafat's headquarters was capturing the greatest share of attention, the Israeli military presence was felt in every corner of this city as troops searched for militants and weapons caches.

Palestinians trapped in their homes by the fighting described a mixture of terror and tedium as the hours and days dragged on.

"We hear the sound of gunfire and tank shells, and the children are afraid, and then it stops, and we have nothing to do but talk about things we have talked about over and over again," said Emad el-Atshan, 38, whose apartment house, home to six families, is less than 50 yards from Arafat's compound.

Troops have commandeered homes and buildings, set up sandbag emplacements draped with camouflage netting on residential streets, erected barricades and dug trenches, turning the hilly streets into a near-impassable maze.

"My car," said Ziad Abu Arah, gesturing toward a late-model tan Ford that had been run over by a tank. "It's the second one of mine this happened to."

Almost the only vehicles out in the streets were Israeli armored personnel carriers, the occasional ambulance and journalists' cars that maneuvered gingerly -- often turned back by tanks that swiveled their turrets and trained their big guns on anything or anyone that ventured too close.

Power and water had been cut in many districts. "Everything has rotted in the refrigerator -- it smells terrible -- and we can't even wash our clothes," said 20-year-old Sireen Abdel Hadi, who lives with her parents and three sisters in an affluent hillside neighborhood.

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