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Arafat in a corner: his worst and best spot

Sunday, the Palestinian leader made frantic calls, seeking world intervention on his behalf.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2002



RAMALLAH, WEST BANK

Plumes of black smoke rose Sunday from the rubble of the government complex that once represented the Palestinians' march toward statehood.

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Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sits trapped in one last, battered building that epitomizes the demise of his Palestinian Authority – and the willingness of Israeli leaders to view Mr. Arafat as unworthy of anything but punishment – or excommunication.

Still, is Israel demolishing Arafat's standing, or rebuilding it?

It is not the first time that Israeli forces have surrounded and shattered the walls around the compound of Mr. Arafat, who has been trapped in Ramallah since last December. But the Israeli military siege around Arafat headquarters, which began on Friday in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, suggests a new drive by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to force Palestinians to bid farewell to a leader he says let them down.

While Mr. Sharon appears determined to turn Arafat into a broken man unable to prevent the very walls around him from being ripped down by Israel, many Palestinians say that Sharon is succeeding only in rebuilding Arafat's popularity by causing a sudden surge in support for their embattled leader.

"The Israelis are thinking that if there are attacks on president's office, they have weakened the president. But I think this is not right," says Kadoura Fares, a Palestinian legislative council member who has been critical of Arafat and has been part of a Palestinian movement to choose a prime minister – turning Arafat into a figurehead. Israel's military offensive in Ramallah, he argues, has only served to freeze that movement in its tracks.

"Arafat is stronger today than he was yesterday," says Mr. Fares. "The Palestinians feel that the Israelis want to kill their elected president, and the feeling among the Palestinians is that they have attacked our dignity."

Israel says it doesn't actually want to harm Arafat, but wants him to turn over militants holed up with him: about 200 men in the building. Much of Arafat's compound has been been destroyed in the past half year, and especially over the past few days.

But whether something will be left with which to rebuild – and indeed whether there is some game plan that Sharon has in mind when he makes his choice of retaliation – are questions that are plaguing the players in a dark script that seems to keep repeating itself again and again.

"I think the endgame, if there is one, is [for Sharon to] further intensify the processes of Palestinian disillusionment with Arafat to the point where he is discredited or ejected by Palestinians, rather than by something Israel does directly," says Mark Heller, a political analyst at Tel Aviv University. "It is true that Palestinians are also saying that he's totally impotent," he adds, and Sharon hopes they will say, "Arafat can't do anything to force Israel's hand, he can only provoke it."

Though the Palestinians fail to see the logic of once again entrapping Arafat and all but bringing down the roof over his head, in Israeli eyes there is something effective in Sharon's approach. "There is an internal debate going on in Palestinian society in the past few months that was not going on beforehand. We are hearing public criticism that we only heard before in quiet conversations, and that is in part a result of strong Israeli military pressure and strong American pressure," says Heller.

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