Jordan: Arafat May Be A Problem

Yasser Arafat should take "a long look in the mirror" and decide whether to step aside in the interest of his people, Jordan's king said in an interview published Tuesday, providing a rare indication of Arab frustration with the Palestinian leader.

Meanwhile, Israeli helicopters pounded the Rafah refugee camp with missiles and machine gun fire Tuesday, killing at least 15 Palestinians, eight of them armed, as troops searched houses in the largest Israeli offensive in Gaza in years.

Asked to elaborate on President Bush's statement Tuesday morning that he finds the unfolding violence in Gaza to be troubling, spokesman Scott McClellan said the U.S. accepts Israel's explanation of the operation, but is concerned about the loss of life.

Israel and the United States often have pushed for Arafat to step aside, and Secretary of State Colin Powell has harshly criticized the Palestinian leader in recent days. Powell said Arafat "continues to take actions and make statements that make it exceptionally difficult to move forward," and he suggested Palestinian and other Arab leaders should persuade him to make way for a more flexible successor.

However, even though Arab leaders have been frustrated by Arafat many times over the decades, they rarely discuss who should be in charge in a fellow Arab nation.

Jordan, a key regional mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, also is in a delicate situation: more than half its population is Palestinian and it must balance a friendship with the United States with rising Arab frustration over U.S. policies toward Israel and Iraq.

Pressed in the Times interview about whether he agreed with Powell's criticism of Arafat as an obstacle to peace, Abdullah was quoted as saying: "I think Arafat needs to have a long look in the mirror to be able to see whether his position is helping the Palestinian cause or not."

Earlier Monday, Abdullah had told reporters on the sidelines of final day of the World Economic Forum in Jordan that Palestinian leaders "need to get their act together" so others can help them.

He said then there are "three or four elements of leadership that are competing with each other" and that their lack of coordination is costing them.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, and Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeineh both refused to comment Tuesday on the king's remarks.

The army has destroyed about 100 Palestinian homes in Rafah since Friday and more houses will be demolished, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. The practice has been condemned by the U.S. and the U.N.

"The actions of the Israelis in Rafah are a disproportionate response to the military threat that they face there," said U.N. spokesman Paul McCann.

Redeineh wants U.S. intervention.

"This is a new massacre," he said. "We urge the Americans to stop this Israeli aggression."

The first phase of Israel's offensive, "Operation Rainbow," struck the Tel Sultan neighborhood on the outskirts of the Rafah camp Tuesday, about 1.5 miles from the patrol road.

Bulldozers began tearing up a road to separate the neighborhood from the rest of the camp, home to about 90,000 Palestinians, witnesses said. Soldiers backed by about 70 armored vehicles went house-to-house in the neighborhood.

Resident Mohammed Shaer, 39, said soldiers locked him, his wife and five children in one room as they searched the building. He said he heard heavy firing outside, and that no one dared approach the windows.

In all, more than 11,000 Palestinians in Rafah have been made homeless by Israeli demolitions since the outbreak of Israeli-Paletinian fighting in 2000.

With the dead streaming to Abu Yousef Al Najar Hospital in Rafah, the morgue filled up and bodies were placed in a storefront next to a felafel stand. In the makeshift morgue, bodies were wrapped in white cloth and laid out on the ground.

Palestinian ambulance drivers reported coming under fire, and Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, a Palestinian Health Ministry official, said several ambulances were pinned down in the area of fighting, unable to evacuate wounded to the hospital.

Dr. Wael Burdeini said troops besieged a U.N. clinic in Tel Sultan, with a tank and an army bulldozer parked outside, and heavy shooting in the area. Burdeini said the clinic's three ambulances were unable to move. "Two pregnant women called for urgent medical care, and one of them delivered at home," Burdeini said.

The doctor said he knew of two bodies the ambulances were unable to retrieve, include one lying near a building.

The Israeli military denied besieging the clinic, saying gunmen were firing from nearby at Israeli troops and drawing return fire. Maj. Sharon Feingold said the military had sent 40 oxygen tanks to Rafah hospital and was keeping the access road open.

Hassanain said the Rafah hospital was not equipped to treat seriously wounded patients. However, troops sealed off Rafah on Monday, and the road to a larger hospital in neighboring Khan Younis — and the rest of the Gaza Strip — was closed. The army said it was permitting some ambulances to drive to Khan Younis.

The Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said the aim of the operation is to destroy arms-smuggling tunnels. He said homes would only be demolished if gunmen used them as firing positions or to cover up tunnels. However, earlier this week, Yaalon was quoted as telling the Israeli Cabinet that hundreds of houses were marked for demolition, if weapons smuggling and violence in Rafah persisted.

He said Israel has no choice but to act, because Palestinian militants have succeeded in smuggling rocket-propelled grenade launchers into Rafah, with the help of Iran and the Iranian-funded Hezbollah guerrilla group in Lebanon.

"They find that the Egyptian border is easy to get through and they are bringing in these weapons," Yaalon said.

The Israeli operation was expected to last a few days.