Arafat in a corner: his worst and best spot

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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?

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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.

Yesterday, Egypt urged the United States, Russia, and France to press Israel to lift its siege after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders received dramatic phone calls from Arafat. Britain called on Sunday for an end to the siege and said it was lodging a formal protest with Israel. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit on Sunday also condemned the siege, saying, "Yasser Arafat is the legitimate representative of his people. An attack like this ... is troubling." Mainly Muslim Turkey generally enjoys warm ties with the Jewish state.

Moving into the third day of Israel's crushing ring around Arafat's headquarters, known in Arabic as the moquata, Israelis wondered out loud whether this could be the final stage of Arafat's removal from the seat of Palestinian leadership.

Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri, told Army Radio: "If he [Arafat] decides he wants to leave, we will give him a lift out – and a one-way ticket."

But in another interview, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that Israel was simply creating a "cordon" so that Arafat would hand over the 50 wanted men.

But Palestinian officials trapped inside the compound said they had been given no specific names of wanted men and that Israel had spurned all offers to negotiate their way out of the confrontation.

One of those the compound was Palestinian finance minister Salam Fayyad, who spoke by cellphone while sitting across the room from the Palestinian leader. He said that Arafat was OK, and "a very patient man."

The conditions in the compound where 200 men were confined, he said, were "not sanitary, and that water was no longer flowing from the taps." Soon afterwards, the Associated Press reported that electricity to the compound was cut.

"This is a major escalation that is extremely ineffective and dangerous. God knows what will happen next. I see it as completely out of proportion. If the intention is to go after certain individuals who launch attacks, why not go after them," says Dr. Fayyad, who was credited by Israel to bringing accountability to PA finances.

After three days of men sleeping on the floors and surviving off stores of food and water, Mr. Fayyad says he's "depressed.... I find it especially disturbing that the Israelis are so far not permitting discussion with the leadership here," he says.

The liberal Israeli paper Haaratz reported that senior Palestinian officials were meeting at Arafat headquarters Friday to discuss the possible appointment of a prime minister, most likely the paper said, Abu Mazen, Arafat's deputy. But Fayyad says that any talk of a change in leadership has been stifled by the Israeli army action.

One thing is certain, as Palestinians waited to get through crowded checkpoints yesterday, they spoke of Arafat in fonder terms than they had in a long time.

"They blame Arafat for every explosion in Tel Aviv. Why not blame the people who did it?" said Sharif Siam. "Believe me, over 95 percent of the Palestinians are with Arafat, even those who hated him," said Siam who is visiting his family in Ramallah, from his newer home in North Bergen, New Jersey. "Arafat doesn't have power militarily but with his people. If he becomes a martyr today, this country will be full of thousands of Arafats."

• Material from wire services was used in this report.

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