Under American pressure, the IDF yesterday halted its demolition of buildings in the Ramallah Muqata and allowed provisions to be delivered to besieged Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his men. At the same time, negotiations began about turning over 19 wanted terrorist suspects in the compound, but the Palestinians declared they would not agree to Israel's demands.
The halt in the destruction came at noon yesterday after consultations between Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and senior IDF and Shin Bet officers.
Their decision stemmed from American pressure to calm things down in advance of the UN Security Council meeting today, and mass Palestinian demonstrations in support of the beleaguered Arafat, in which five people were killed.
Protests resumed in several West Bank towns and in the Gaza Strip yesterday afternoon and a Palestinian teenager from Nablus was killed by IDF fire. (See story page 2)
Another consideration was fear that buildings might collapse in the compound and harm Arafat.
In the last two days Jordan and Egypt have sent requests to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Ben-Eliezer not to harm the Palestinian leader.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau yesterday expressed satisfaction with the tenor of international reactions to the Muqata siege. On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder asked Sharon to refrain from harming Arafat.
Prime Minister Sharon promised them this was not his intention, but he stressed that Israel remains firm in its demand that the terrorists besieged in the Muqata should be turned over to the IDF. Yesterday he received no requests from international statesmen about Arafat.
Also on Saturday, American Ambassador Dan Kurtzer passed on to Sharon a U.S. request not to harm Arafat and sources in Sharon's bureau expressed satisfaction with the mild American position.
Yesterday Osama El Baz, advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, called Ben-Eliezer and expressed Mubarak's concern over the events and his fear for Arafat's safety. Ben-Eliezer repeated that Israel had no intention of endangering Arafat. On Saturday foreign diplomats suggested to Peres that the wanted terrorists be transferred to the prison in Jericho. Peres rejected the idea.
Security sources admitted that the main reason for halting the demolitions was growing American unease about the IDF operation, which the White House described as "not helpful." White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said yesterday: "Israeli actions in and around the Muqata are not helpful in reducing terrorist violence or promoting Palestinian reforms."
Mamo also strongly condemned suicide bombings and called on the Palestinians to stop such attacks, but she urged Israel to "continue considering the consequences of its actions."
As IDF bulldozers were withdrawing from the Muqata, in the evening trucks with provisions for the 200 besieged men were allowed in after the security authorities authorized the list presented by Arafat.
The IDF also renewed the water supply to the Muqata, but Palestinians said the air conditioning, electricity and phone lines had also been cut off. The IDF said it was not aware there was a water problem, but said that if it received requests for either food or water, it would supply them.
Israel yesterday demanded a detailed list from the Palestinians of all the men in the compound, to compare it with the Shin Bet list. The Palestinians have not yet responded, but repeated their refusal to negotiate on turning in the wanted men.
However, talks about a possible solution to the crisis are already in progress in political and security channels. Sources in the security establishment yesterday said that in previous crises, such as in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and in the Muqata itself (where the murderers of Rehavam Ze'evi took refuge) solutions were found, although they took a long time.
One of the channels to pass messages to the besieged men is the Civil Administration, whose officer is in charge of giving Israeli answers to Arafat's requests. Some of the military representatives to the negotiations are also in the Muqata compound, but are not a significant party to the talks.
A senior officer told Ha'aretz that in his opinion, a "creative solution" could be found to the issue of the wanted terrorists. Some of the besieged men have told Israeli sources of their wish to leave the compound, but feared it would be considered abandoning Arafat.
Security sources said yesterday that those around Arafat still very much feared the possibility that Israel would deport him.
The sources said senior Palestinian Authority officials have demanded of Hamas in the last few days that it cease suicide bombings in case they lead to a final Israeli decision to drive Chairman Arafat out of Ramallah.