Thousands Break Curfews to Protest on the Streets of West Bank and Gaza Strip

The army's siege on Yasser Arafat's Muqata compound in Ramallah and its demand that 19 terror suspects be turned over, sparked a wave of protests throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, starting late Saturday night. Five Palestinians were killed and scores wounded as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Hebron, Tubas, Nablus and Bethlehem, and also at a number of sites on the Gaza Strip.

The IDF refrained yesterday from enforcing a curfew that is still officially in effect on all West Bank cities, apart from Bethlehem. IDF troops were instructed to keep a "low profile" in crowded urban areas.

Despite such orders mandating IDF restraint, about 30 Palestinians were injured in the protests, in addition to the five fatalities. Palestinians killed in the clashes include Ahmed Radwan, a Tanzim operative from the Tul Karm refugee camp, who was shot and killed after midnight Saturday; Mahad Hashash, 53, who was killed in demonstrations in the Nablus area; and two Ramallah-area residents, Isa Isma'il and Issam Hamza, who were killed in protests late Saturday night near the Muqata.

In Bethlehem yesterday, demonstrators held up posters of Arafat, and called the Palestinian Authority chairman a "symbol of peace and freedom." "We are all under siege," the protesters shouted.

In Tubas, northeast of Nablus, thousands of Palestinians ignored curfew restrictions, and poured on to the streets in support of Arafat. "We're behind you [Arafat] until liberation," they shouted, carrying a banner saying: "The siege increases our determination to continue the struggle."

In the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Palestinians marched in Gaza City and refugee camps. Some of the demonstrators were reportedly militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Demonstrations in Ramallah resumed last night. Hundreds of protesters gathered in the city's central Manara Square. IDF troops and Israeli border police were deployed a few hundred meters from the protesters, between Manara Square and the Muqata. As of press time, no violent clashes were reported.

A senior Israeli security official acknowledged yesterday that the wave of protests in the territories "requires careful review." The official claimed, however, that the scope of Palestinian demonstrations protesting the siege on the Ramallah compound hasn't been particularly large. "Had similar circumstances developed a year ago, the whole West Bank would have been in flames," the Israeli official said.

Another senior Israeli official explained that the halt on the attack on the Muqata, and the IDF's low profile policy during demonstrations on the West Bank, were designed to allay tensions. "Given the tension that has deepened because of the siege on Arafat, it is important to prevent more bloodshed, fatalities and funerals" in the territories, the official said.

Some PA leaders alluded to the demonstrations as proof that Israel's policy of isolating Arafat has backfired. Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan al-Khatib claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of attacking the Muqata has failed. "We believe that Sharon initiated a badly mistaken process when he surrounded the compound. His policy, which tried to weaken President Arafat, is backfiring," Khatib told Reuters. "It is strengthening Arafat, it is giving public sympathy and public credibility to President Arafat."

Such criticism of Israel's attack on the Muqata was voiced not only by PA leaders. "Before the siege I didn't care much about Arafat but now I wish to be one of his soldiers," Lamees Mahmoud, a 27-year-old Palestinian teacher in Ramallah, said. "He is under siege and this is a humiliation for all the Palestinians."