Ramallah (West Bank), Sept. 22 (Reuters): Israeli troops shot dead four Palestinian protesters today as thousands of people took to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to demonstrate against the siege of Yasser Arafat, witnesses said.
The US said Israel’s siege of Arafat’s West Bank compound was “not helpful” in ending Palestinian suicide bombings.
“Israeli actions in and around the Muqata’a are not helpful in reducing terrorist violence or promoting Palestinian reforms,” White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said, referring to the Palestinian President’s complex in Ramallah, 20 km north of Jerusalem.
The street protests, which erupted after midnight and resumed around midday, were the first sign of popular support for Arafat since troops besieged his West Bank headquarters on Thursday and prompted aides to suggest the army’s siege could backfire.
Buoyed by the support, Arafat vowed never to surrender to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and refused to hand over 50 suspected militants who Israel says are holed up with him.
“He reiterated he will not kneel before Sharon and has issued an order to his men that no one may surrender from the building,” said Hatem Abdel Khader, a Palestinian aide who spoke to Arafat by telephone.
Israel had said earlier about 20 suspects were hiding inside the compound. The number was raised to 50 after people leaving the headquarters area were questioned by Israeli security services.
Despite his defiance, Arafat looks more isolated politically than at any time since he returned to the region from exile in 1994. Troops besieging his base in response to suicide bombings have razed most of the headquarters, a symbol of his power.
Marching under pictures of the Palestinian leader and chanting “We will give our soul and blood for Arafat”, protesters poured onto the streets after midnight. Some were armed.
Palestinian hospital officials said two protesters were shot dead overnight in Ramallah and two others were killed in the early hours of the morning in the northern West Bank.
The army confirmed only two of the deaths, and said its troops killed armed men and were responding to gunfire.
Palestinian hospital sources also said an Israeli soldier killed a teenager who defied a curfew in the West Bank city of Nablus. They said the soldier fired from a tank-mounted machinegun but the army had no information about the fifth reported death.
Tightening the siege they began after two suicide bombings killed several people in Israel, the army cut telephone lines and power to Arafat’s devastated headquarters as heavy machinery worked to demolish the buildings around him.
It said troops had also accidentally cut water supplies and later allowed damaged water pipes to be repaired.
Thousands of people staged new rallies in Gaza City and in Hebron, Tubas, Salfit and Bethlehem in the West Bank after the deaths in the overnight protests.
Calling Arafat a “Symbol of peace and freedom”, hundreds of people demonstrated in Bethlehem under posters of Arafat. “We are all under siege,” they shouted.
In Tubas, in the northern West Bank, thousands hailed Arafat by his nom de guerre, chanting: “Go, go, Abu Ammar. We’re behind you until liberation.”
The rise in tensions amid the siege, suicide bombings and street protests has further dented hopes of ending two years of violence that has killed at least 1,555 Palestinians and 599 Israelis since the Palestinians rose up against occupation.
It has raised fears of a new surge of bloodshed that could complicate Washington’s plans for possible war on Iraq.
Suggesting the siege could backfire by rallying support for Arafat among his disgruntled population, Palestinian labour minister Ghassan al-Khatib said: “It is strengthening Arafat. It is giving (him) public sympathy and public credibility.”
But almost all the buildings in Arafat’s presidential compound have now been demolished by armoured bulldozers and he is at the mercy of the troops surrounding him.
Europe has expressed its concern and the US has advised Israel to consider the consequences of its action. But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat regretted the lack of international concern.
“All our contacts with the Israelis, Europeans and Americans have failed to produce any tangible results,” he said.
Photos released by the Palestinian Authority showed a grim-looking Arafat perusing documents, with bottles of mineral water on his desk and his holstered gun placed behind him.
The Palestinians deny harbouring any “terrorists” at the headquarters and fear the aim is to kill Arafat.
But Dore Gold, an Israeli government spokesman, said: “Yasser Arafat is free to go. He is not the issue.”
“The issue is the fact that his Muqata’a (headquarters) has been turned into a sanctuary of terrorism where some of the worst masterminds of attacks against Israel have sought refuge.”