GAZA CITY, 4 December — Israeli combat helicopters yesterday blasted Palestinian cities, leaving over three dozen people injured and causing massive damage as United States said Tel Aviv had the right to defend itself and warned Arafat to show the world, in deeds, “he stands for peace.”
Four US-made Apache helicopters fired around 10 missiles into President Yasser Arafat’s heliport, destroying two of Arafat’s civilian helicopters and severely damaging his third as Israeli tanks and armored vehicles descended en masse on Palestinian areas in the West Bank.
Just an hour later, Israeli F-16 fighter bombers launched air raids on Palestinian security targets in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, already under effective siege, while helicopters hit Bethlehem to the south.
Reports from Gaza said the helicopters fired missiles at an airfield 100 meters from Arafat’s office. The Palestinian leader himself was in Ramallah at the time of the attack. Palestinians said dozens were injured in the strike.
Witnesses said the missile strike also damaged a hangar on the coast of densely populated Gaza City at around 4:30 p.m. (1430 GMT). A fuel dump for the helicopters also exploded after being hit. People fled the packed streets in panic as columns of smoke rose into the air. Seventeen people were taken to hospital and dozens of others suffered shock and trauma from the blast, medical officials said.
In the helicopter strike on Bethlehem, 16 Palestinians were injured, Palestinian hospital officials said. Israeli F-16 fighter bombers also launched air raids on the West Bank town of Jenin.
A Palestinian intelligence officer died late yesterday after an explosion in Bethlehem, hospital sources said.
Raafat Al Bejali, a 30-year-old member of Arafat’s Fatah movement, died of his wounds while on the road to the West Bank town of Hebron for special medical treatment, the sources said.
Witnesses said more than three missiles had slammed into targets in Jenin, apparently hitting the police headquarters and the governor’s building.
Crown Prince Abdullah, deputy premier and commander of the National Guard, received a telephone call from Arafat yesterday. The two leaders discussed the situation in Palestine in the wake of Israeli attacks on the Palestinian people as well as international efforts to revive the peace talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed President Arafat yesterday for a “war of terrorism” which was intended to drive the Israeli people into exile.
Addressing the nation he said Israel would withstand the attacks and vowed to pursue those responsible.
“A war of terrorism was forced on us,” Sharon said in a live televised broadcast.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Sharon’s address was a “declaration of war.”
“Tonight we heard a declaration of war,” said Erakat on CNN. “Sharon has chosen the path of darkness.”
“The Israeli occupation forces have begun to concentrate numerous tanks, armored vehicles and troop carriers around towns and Palestinian villages,” a Palestinian Authority spokesman told the official WAFA news agency.
Saeb Erekat, who is also a Cabinet minister, said the missile strike showed Israel was trying to destroy Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and he called on the United States to force a halt to the bombardment.
Arafat’s helicopters have been regarded by Israelis and Palestinians alike as a symbol of his freedom of movement in governing Palestinian areas that he wants for the creation of an independent state.
The strike came as the Palestinian Authority continued a crackdown on suspected activists and Israeli officials mulled a response to the bombings.
Palestinian sources said that by early afternoon over 100 activists had been seized.
An adviser to Arafat told Turkey’s NTV television Israeli helicopter raids on Gaza City yesterday caused “a lot of damage.”
“Israel is responsible for this escalation of the violence,” Abu Rudeina said, adding that “The Palestinians have the right to defend themselves”.
“The Muslim world and world public opinion should understand what’s going on today in Gaza and exert pressure on Israel to stop the violence”, he said.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the air raid which destroyed helicopters near Arafat’s Gaza headquarters was a signal to the Palestinian leader to step up the fight against extremists.”
In Washington, the White House said yesterday that Israel had the right to defend itself after Israeli missiles struck Palestinian-ruled Gaza City. “There is a real chance for Arafat to show the world, in deeds, he stands for peace,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. The spokesman said the burden was now on Arafat to show that he will act to stop such attacks.
In Damascus, the Hamas condemned yesterday the arrests of its activists by the Palestinian Authority, saying that the authority “was trying to become Israel’s protector.”
In another development, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly yesterday on six resolutions criticizing Israel, one of which called on all states with embassies in Jerusalem to move them out of the city.
The resolutions, none of them binding, were adopted despite a plea by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Yehuda Lancry, for the assembly not to “endow Palestinian terrorism with an international legitimacy”.
In Cairo, Jordan’s King Abdallah held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday on the escalating Middle East violence.