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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.

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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.

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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.