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Jerrold Kessel: Israel trying to sideline Arafat

CNN's Jerrold Kessel
CNN's Jerrold Kessel  

(CNN) -- Israeli forces withdrew from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah early Thursday, a day after they stormed the compound after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 17 Israelis on a bus in northern Israel.

One of Arafat's bodyguards was killed, and six other people were seriously wounded in the raid, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel talked with CNN anchor Paula Zahn about Israel's response to the terrorist attack.

ZAHN: Up front this morning, Israel responds with force after yesterday's [Wednesday's] suicide bombing, which killed 17 Israelis. Tanks and armored vehicles rolled into Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah. Heavy gunfire was exchanged, and one of Arafat's bodyguards was killed before Israeli forces pulled out a few hours later.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel joins us now with more live from Jerusalem.

Good morning, Jerrold.

KESSEL: Good morning, Paula.

And indeed an Israeli action -- a strong Israeli action, forceful but limited in time. And Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader [inspected] the damage even to his personal headquarters. There was damage to other buildings in his compound, blown up, one Palestinian policeman killed, but in his personal headquarters [there was] also a good deal of damage, and this is what the Palestinian leader had to say.

(Videotape begins)

YASSER ARAFAT (Palestinian Authority president): They [Israelis] are saying -- or they try to say -- that they can defeat us. No one can defeat the Palestinian people, who are defending the holy, sacred Christian and Muslim holy places. And we are here to defend it, and we are ready to die to defend it.

(End of videotape)

KESSEL: A very defiant Yasser Arafat. But what...seemed [was] evolving into the second battle for his...headquarters there in Ramallah soon proved to be something entirely different. How different a scene from only a month ago, when Yasser Arafat was held under siege for five weeks...

This time, they were out within six hours. But nonetheless, they are saying it is the same purpose that they had in mind. Then they were saying they were out to isolate Yasser Arafat, to sideline him, to show, in [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon's words, that he was irrelevant. Now, the Israelis are admitting that its five-week siege missed its mark. Yasser Arafat, instead of being shown to be irrelevant, was the focus of the issue, became the symbol of Palestinian resilience.

Now, what the Israelis say by the short action in the heart of Yasser Arafat's power base, they say they are again trying to sideline him by showing just how powerless he is, that he has no real authority, and that he should not count for having any such authority.

This comes as the Israelis begin to bury their dead from yesterday's suicide bombing attack on that bus in Galilee; 17 Israelis killed, 13 of them soldiers. Many of the funerals are taking place today. But even as the Israelis mourn their dead, Palestinians are counting the political, the diplomatic cost of that operation by the Islamic group, Islamic Jihad. Palestinian officials saying that this could really damage the efforts by President Bush, by Egypt's President Mubarak to try to move this conflict back into the negotiating mold. A real challenge for Yasser Arafat here.




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