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RAMALLAH: It all sounds so familiar. Yasser Arafat is holed up in his Ramallah headquarters, surrounded by Israeli tanks and soldiers while Ariel Sharon demands that he should hand over a group of “terrorists” he is alleged to be sheltering.

It was only four months ago that Mr Arafat walked out of the same compound at the end of a similar standoff after the British and Americans agreed to oversee the imprisonment of three Palestinian officials responsible for the murder of an Israeli cabinet minister.

This time Mr Sharon has gone further. The army has blown up or pulled down virtually all the buildings in the compound, the Muqata, trapping Mr Arafat and about 200 supporters in fairly squalid conditions in the only one remaining.

His government claims that they include a group of men behind the suicide bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv which killed five people, including a student from Glasgow. It is not just Mr Arafat who is being punished. Ramallah is under continuous curfew, keeping its residents from work, leaving some short of food and fuelling the bitterness that pervades Palestinian towns.

So the relative optimism of Dr Basem Rimawi, as he defied the curfew, might have seemed out of place. But he is not alone in Ramallah in sensing that Mr Arafat’s latest bout of captivity is evidence of Mr Sharon’s desperation.

Dr Rimawi had turned out for a small demonstration by medical workers in defiance of the round-the-clock curfew that has been in place for more than a week, lifted only briefly to allow Palestinians to buy food. Doctors say children are dying because they are unable to reach proper medical care.

“I believe even Sharon doesn’t know what he’s trying to achieve any more,” Dr Rimawi said. “He promised that sending his army into our towns would stop the attacks in Israel but it hasn’t. He still has to punish someone, so he makes Arafat pay. It is a policy of frustration but where does it get Sharon? In the end it will do him more harm than Arafat.”

Members of Mr Sharon’s own party in parliament, senior army officers and sympathetic diplomats are openly questioning the point and wisdom of the latest siege.

Some are critical of the strategy, fearing that it is strengthening Mr Arafat’s hand. Others believe Mr Sharon knows exactly what he is doing and that he is intent on wrecking any prospect of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian activists plan to mark the second anniversary of the beginning of the intifada today with a much larger challenge to the curfew and Israeli control of the Ramallah streets.

But one who will not be leaving his home is Bassam Abu Sharif, a close ally of Mr Arafat, whose house overlooks the Muqata and who in turn is watched by Israeli troops. Mr Abu Sharif argues that Mr Sharon ordered the attack on the compound out of frustration at the failure of his militarist strategy to stop the suicide bombings.

“Sharon is bankrupt politically and now he’s bankrupt militarily, in the sense that under his two years of rule he has killed hundreds of Palestinians, injured thousands, and what has he achieved? Nothing.

“Sharon wants to look as if he’s doing something. The first official reasoning for the siege is that Arafat was behind the operation [the Tel Aviv bomb]. Then they said it wasn’t Arafat, it was people in his compound. When the Palestinians said ‘Give us the names of the people you want’, the Israelis said ‘Give us the names of the people in there’. They don’t even know who’s in there.”

Mr Sharon shifted his position again in an interview with the Jerusalem Post [newspaper] on Friday.

“A great deal of thought went into the operations in Ramallah,” he said. “Our intention is to prevent the Palestinian Authority, which is involved in terrorism, and the terror organisations it works with, including the Palestinian security forces, from committing and escalating their attacks ahead of a possible attack [by the US] against Iraq.”

On Thursday members of the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee criticised the operation. Its Labour party chairman, Haim Ramon, said: “The idea that Arafat can be isolated at the beginning of the 21st century by destroying buildings is odd, and even stupid.” A member of Mr Sharon’s Likud party, Moshe Arens, said the operation had “only damaged Israel in the court of international opinion”.

The British ambassador, Sherad Cowper-Coles, told the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, that the operation complicated the campaign against Iraq and asked what connection there was between the Tel Aviv bombing and Mr Arafat.

The UN’s chief Middle East envoy, Terje Larsen, says the siege could undermine the reform of the authority and doom the prospect of a Palestinian state.

“If the two-state solution idea dies, then the security situation for Israelis and Palestinians alike will be in total jeopardy,” he said

But Mr Abu Sharif suggests that Mr Sharon may be getting something of what he wants. He says that the siege, the curfew and the Israeli assaults on the West Bank have undermined support for the suicide bombers and strengthened Mr Arafat’s attempts to curb Hamas.

“These operations [suicide bombings] only serve Sharon. I can understand why many Palestinians supported them. They felt it was the only way to fight back. But they have brought only problems. Now more than 80 per cent of the Palestinians are against it. Arafat is able much more than before to contain the situation because Hamas is cornered. The majority of people are against these operations.”

Recent opinion polls suggest otherwise. One last month showed that 53 per cent of Palestinians opposed their leaders’ efforts to stop suicide attacks, only marginally lower that the figure found by a similar poll 10 months ago.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.