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Peace Advocates in Arafat Compound Hope to Deter Israeli Troops
Published on Wednesday, April 3, 2002 in the New York Times
Peace Advocates in Arafat Compound Hope to Deter Israeli Troops
by Joel Greenberg
JERUSALEM — Declaring that they want to protect him from the Israelis, more than 30 foreign activists holed up with Yasir Arafat at his besieged office in Ramallah have become a complicating factor in Israeli calculations of how to proceed against the Palestinian leader.

The foreigners, mostly Europeans, are part of an ad hoc group that arrived several days ago for a series of actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in support of the Palestinians and in protest against the Israeli military presence there.

Their televised walk through a ring of tanks into the compound on Sunday caught Israeli soldiers by surprise, and they have effectively become human shields. Their continued presence in Mr. Arafat's offices has flustered the Israelis, complicating their self-declared mission of isolating the Palestinian leader.

The gunfire around the building has died down, supplies have been allowed in, and Palestinian concerns about an imminent Israeli assault have receded.

"We thought that as long as there were internationals here, there would be no vicious Israeli attack," said Claude Leostic, from Brest, France, in a telephone interview from the besieged office. "And we've been right so far. We're here as a deterrent against shelling and missile attacks."

Neta Golan, an Israeli peace advocate who is with the foreigners at Mr. Arafat's office, said she believed that the group's presence was having a restraining effect on Israeli troops.

"We're hoping that our presence on the front line with the Palestinians will make the soldiers more cautious about shooting without reason," Ms. Golan said. "The death of Europeans or an Israeli would cause a stir that Palestinian deaths are not causing."

The overall operation had been going on for months, attracting modest media attention and serving as a mild irritant to the army. However, when the Israelis launched their broad offensive into West Bank towns this week, the protests gained sudden prominence.

The foreigners in the compound, many from Italy and France, came on a visit organized by two West Bank groups that have organized nonviolent action against Israeli forces there: the International Solidarity Movement and Grass-roots International Protection for the Palestinian People.

During the 18-month Palestinian uprising, the actions have included removing roadblocks, planting trees in place of those uprooted by the Israelis, demonstrating in front of Israeli tanks and trying to walk through army checkpoints that restrict Palestinian movement.

However, the march into Mr. Arafat's office by more than 40 foreigners took the protests to a new level, because it broke a tightening Israeli ring of armor and gunfire that appeared perilously close to reaching Mr. Arafat himself.

The Israelis responded by banning foreigners, including journalists, from Ramallah, and by arresting and deporting a group of French protesters who had left the compound, among them José Bové, the union leader and antiglobalization protester.

Like the rest of Ramallah, Mr. Arafat's offices have been hit by power blackouts and disruption of water supply after electric cables and water pipes were damaged by the Israeli tanks, and the foreigners have been rationing food supplies with the office staff and guards.

A shipment of food, water and medicine was allowed in today by the Israelis. An army statement said the food included 66 containers of yellow cheese, 600 pieces of pita bread, 40 cans of halva, 23 cans of tuna, 13 cans of hummus, 34 crates of mineral water, more than 140 pounds of coffee and 55 cans of sardines.

Caoimhe Butterly, an activist from Ireland who helped collect the supplies, said Israeli soldiers filmed her and Ms. Leostic as they stepped out of the office, and called them over for a chat in an area where there were waiting police vehicles, an apparent attempt to lure them into arrest. The two women refused to go.

Ms. Butterly said that despite the persistent tension and siege, morale at Mr. Arafat's offices had improved greatly and the Israeli assault had abated after the arrival of the international group on Sunday.

On Saturday night, she said, Palestinians in the building were readying themselves to die in an Israeli attack after they refused an ultimatum to surrender.

The foreigners have also appeared in other West Bank locations that are targets of the Israelis. One group defied an Israeli checkpoint and walked into Bethlehem on Saturday; another marched through the neighboring town of Beit Jala on Monday after it had been invaded by Israeli troops, drawing gunfire that wounded seven demonstrators. Other foreigners have gone to homes of Palestinians in neighboring refugee camps in an effort to offer protection and support.

At Mr. Arafat's compound, the foreigners say they will stay as long as it takes for the Israelis to withdraw.

"It makes a difference," said Miriam Ferrier, from Paris.

"We are a voice for the Palestinian people."

Copyright 2002 New York Times


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