JERUSALEM - Palestinian officers detained 17 militants in Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah yesterday after they defied the Palestinian leader's request to leave, which would have paved the way for an Israeli withdrawal from the city and the lifting of a ban on Arafat's travels.
It was the first time since Arafat's compound was shelled by the Israelis and he was confined there more than a year ago that he has sought to expel extremists taking refuge at the complex, which has been partly demolished by Israeli tanks and bulldozers.
For the past month, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has demanded that Palestinian security services disarm extremist organizations before the army withdraws from more cities in the West Bank.
But Palestinian Security Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahlan reiterated yesterday that disarming the militant groups, who declared three- and six-month unilateral cease-fires June 29, would lead to "civil war."
Arafat has been sidelined from Middle East peace plans by the United States and Israel, who accuse him of fomenting violence and blocking peace efforts. Both the United States and Israel have dealt with new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, once Arafat's shadow but now the leading Palestinian proponent for a peaceful solution.
The attempt to expel the 17 men - a day after Israeli troops raided West Bank cities and arrested four militants - was immediately criticized by Palestinian militant leaders, who warned that they would demand the resignation of advisers to Arafat if any harm came to the expelled men.
Yesterday, the head of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Ramallah, Kamal Ghanem, said the 17 militants had refused to be transferred to the oasis city of Jericho in the West Bank, a city that can be reached only by passing through Israeli checkpoints.
Ghanem said the militants had been confined to a room at Arafat's headquarters and had started a hunger strike. However, a senior Palestinian official played down the case: "The men have not been arrested but are being transferred for their own safety to Jericho," he said by telephone.
He said the United States had been asked to intercede with Israel to guarantee that the men would not be arrested on the way to Jericho.
Also yesterday, Israel announced that it was dismantling six more outposts in the West Bank - small settlements, often made up of tents that have served as the core for new settlements. Israel has dismantled only about a dozen of the estimated 100 outposts built after March 2001. Under the "road map" to peace, all these outposts must be shut down.
Dror Etkes, spokesman for Peace Now, Israel's main pacifist movement, called the intended closure of six outposts a "mockery." He said it showed that the Sharon government "does not intend to pay a real price for advancing the peace process."
Peace Now issued a new survey yesterday showing that 90 percent of the 230,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would not use violence to oppose a government decision that they must withdraw.
The survey found that 83 percent of the settlers would leave in exchange for compensation and that 29 percent would like to leave their homes now.
Peace Now, which has monitored settlements for years, argues that the closures are not as large a problem as the government wants Israelis to believe. It says most settlers moved to settlements because of cheap homes, available land and liberal financial grants.
The organization believes that only about 10 percent of the settlers would fight for their homes.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.