Arafat denounces Israeli ‘escalation’


JERUSALEM, AP

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Thursday accused Israel of escalating military operations against the Palestinians, calling it part of a plan to force his people to “kneel down.”

Arafat’s remarks came hours after Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen traded fire in a pre-dawn shootout in the southern Gaza Strip, leaving four Palestinian civilians wounded, including a 63-year-old man, officials said.

The Israeli army said its forces responded to fire from a Palestinian house in the town of Khan Yunis. The elderly Palestinian man, Nasser Abu Shanab, was hit in the chest and seriously wounded, according to Palestinian security officials.

Also, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered the Rafah refugee camp in another part of southern Gaza, flattening agricultural land and firing tank shells, Palestinian security officials said.

Upon his return to Gaza from a trip to Tunisia, Arafat was asked about the recent Israeli military actions.

“This is something which we were expecting,” Arafat told reporters. The Israeli leadership “had a plan and every one of them was talking about it, and they want to escalate this plan.”

The Israelis “thought they could make the Palestinian people kneel down, but they forgot that we are courageous people. We cannot give up, and we will not kneel down, and we will not surrender,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is traveling to Africa and Europe next week, also hopes to meet with Arafat. Powell discussed a possible meeting at the State Department on Tuesday with Mahmoud Abbas, the top deputy to Arafat.

But when Arafat was asked about meeting Powell, the Palestinian leader responded, “I have no knowledge about this issue.”

During the nearly eight months of Mideast violence, Israel has described most of its military operations as direct responses to specific attacks by Palestinian militants.

However, in recent weeks, Israel says it has been initiating actions against Palestinians suspected of organizing or carrying out attacks, and has begun entering Palestinian territory.

Under a policy set by Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli forces have entered Palestinian areas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip more than a dozen times over the past month. The troops regularly knock down buildings and bulldoze trees that have provided cover for Palestinian gunmen.

The Israeli policy has drawn sharp criticism from the Palestinians and the international community, and the Israelis have withdrawn each time after only a few hours on Palestinian controlled land.

Wednesday night, Israeli helicopters pounded Palestinian police offices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They rocketed police and security buildings in the Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City, wounding 10, and also struck in the West Bank town of Jenin.

The Israeli military said Palestinians planned and launched attacks against Israel from the Jabaliya compound, where the target was a building belonging to the Preventive Security Service, headed by Mohammed Dahlan.

Dahlan, who has taken part in peace talks with Israel, charged that the attack was part of Israel’s campaign of “continuous aggression against our people.” The second story of the building was badly damaged.