Jerusalem, Sept. 25 (Reuters) - Israel stood defiant today against pressure from Washington to lift a siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound that could hurt US efforts to contain West Asia tensions ahead of possible war with Iraq.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government did not respond publicly to a US request to abide by a UN resolution calling for an immediate end to the six-day-old siege of the Palestinian President’s headquarters. But Israeli diplomatic sources said Israel had no intention of complying.
“The first interest of Israel is to protect the safety of her citizens and not to comply with the kind of anti-Israeli decisions made at the UN almost traditionally,” one senior Israeli source said.
Israeli tanks rumbled into Arafat’s presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah last Thursday after suicide bombings killed seven Israelis within 24 hours, and then reduced all but one of its buildings to rubble.
Israel is demanding Arafat surrender 50 wanted militants it says are among some 200 Palestinians in the compound. Arafat has refused to hand anyone over or provide a list of people inside.
Asking Israel to heed the UN resolution, Washington called the Israeli operation in Ramallah “unhelpful” to international and internal efforts to persuade Arafat to carry out security and anti-corruption reforms in his Palestinian Authority.
Israeli government sources said they believed the rare US criticism of Israel stemmed from White House concern the siege could stoke West Asia tensions and harm Washington’s bid to win Arab acquiescence in a military campaign against Iraq.
Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres said Israeli military representatives planned talks with Palestinian officials later in the day to address ways of breaking the stalemate.
“Now we are looking for a peaceful solution. We are not looking for an escalation,” he told reporters as Israeli forces in the Ramallah complex showed no signs of leaving.