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Monday, November 01, 2004

The terrorists protected by Arafat in Ramallah disappear

RAMALLAH -- As if in a scene from some postapocalyptic TV production, the men sat for long hours in rooms with one wall missing, in a three-storey building next to the West Bank office of Yasser Arafat.

The building housed one of the Palestinian leader's intelligence services until its outer wall was ripped away during Israel's invasion of Mr. Arafat's Mukata compound in April, 2002.

They were the wanted men of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, sought by Israel on suspicion of being involved in countless attacks on Israelis and the lynching of suspected Palestinian collaborators.

Officially, they did not exist. Reporters could see them, and they would sometimes wave back. But gun-toting guards forbade photographing or talking to them.

The men numbered about 20. They sipped tea, cleaned their Kalashnikov assault rifles or snoozed quietly in the sunlight that drenched the rooms through the missing exterior wall.

Their ghostly presence in the battered compound was repeatedly denied by the Palestinian leader's spokesmen, although they could be seen easily from its western gate.

Some of them were officially employed by one of Mr. Arafat's myriad of security forces. In their spare time, which has of late been plentiful, they doubled as 'activists' for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist wing of Mr. Arafat's Fatah group.

In other words, they went out and tried to kill people, usually Israelis. Sometimes they killed other Palestinians. Sometimes they simply provided muscle for security or political figures, then returned to their three-walled rooms.

On Thursday, close to midnight, the ghosts finally vanished, exorcised by the imminent departure of Mr. Arafat, their patron and protector, for medical treatment in Paris. They walked out through the front gate carrying their weapons, and vanished into the night.