Fenced in, frustrated Arafat speaks out

It's a stark sight: A pile of missile-flattened vehicles hugs the wall of a half-destroyed building, while gun-toting guards mill at the door of another shellshocked structure. They part to allow visitors to climb narrow stairs, past tiny rooms with single beds, into one completely filled with boardroom-style table and chairs.

Short and slightly stooped, the familiar figure in military dress uniform and kaffiyeh enters with a smile and handshakes all around. Now in his 70s, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat has the spent look of a man confined for two years inside this grim compound. As the leader sits down, Palestinians await the results of a meeting between President Bush and the man who confines Mr. Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The next day's news will be very bad for the Palestinians. They call Mr. Bush's letter to Mr. Sharon - in which the US acknowledges some Israeli settlements in the West Bank and rejection of the right of return - a "second" Balfour Declaration: in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British first promised Jewish Zionists a homeland in Palestine, as long as it did not prejudice the rights of the "non-Jewish community."

In two meetings - one before the announcement, at which the Monitor asked questions, and a speech two days after to Christians from 30 countries - Mr. Arafat hews to one line. "In spite of what we are facing in this catastrophe, which our people are suffering day by night from this Israeli military escalation," he says, "we are still committed to the 'peace of the brave' which we signed with our partner, [Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by fanatical groups."

In a tumultuous 40-year odyssey, Arafat has gone from armed revolutionary steeped in a violent struggle against Israel; to found Fatah, a militantly nationalist Palestinian organization, in the early 1960s; to peacemaker and 1994 Nobel Prizewinner; to the first elected Palestinian president; and now, to semisidelined leader.

A decade ago, Israel and the US considered him a terrorist who was trying to reform and lead his people to statehood. Now they consider him a failure in that, and blame him for igniting and fueling the intifada that broke out in 2000. Israel insists he is directly involved in terrorist actions, unable or unwilling to stem violence that has killed more than 900 Israelis and more than 2,000 Palestinians over the past four years.

An October 2003 poll by Palestinian researchers found that a majority of Palestinians said that they do "not feel the presence of the PA after three years of Israeli reoccupation of most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip." When asked to evaluate the performance of the PA, 61.4 percent said it was bad to very bad.

Indeed, since the second intifada, the suicide bomber, considered a martyr in Palestinian society, has challenged Arafat as the ultimate representation of the Palestinian people. Yet Arafat's figure still looms large as a symbol of the decades-long Palestinian resistance - and, to some, of the desires for peace, in his acceptance of Israel's right to exist within its 1967 borders.

Today, he wears a lapel pin with two crossed flags, of Palestine and Israel, a symbol of the two-state solution. He still mourns the assassination of Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist. With Rabin, he says, there were discussions of an economic zone to include Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. "They killed my partner," he repeats.

Last week's news from Washington was a further blow to the Palestinian leadership. Sharon's position has been to seek approval for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip - something Palestinians have sought - while gaining flexibility in dealing with settlements on the West Bank. "I don't have to be diplomatic," says Hanan Ashwari, head of Al-Miftah, a human rights group, who accompanies Arafat at the meeting. "For the first time, an American president has given his blessings for land theft, violation of international law, illegal settlements, and negation of refugee rights.... If the US wants to maintain even minimal credibility in this region, it is up to people to validate our rights."

Despite the shock, the isolated Arafat seems so invigorated by the large crowd of foreigners that he talks forcefully for 20 minutes and afterwards greets each one at the door.

Palestinians call the 36-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza the last remaining colonization in the world, and wonder why the international community does not come to their aid. They say they have negotiated in good faith.

"We have accepted all the agreements, from Camp David to Oslo, to Wye River, to Taba, to the road map," Arafat emphasizes. "It was the Israelis that came up with a list of reservations to President Bush's road map. And we have been willing to have American and European forces at the borders."

Yet it's the one he couldn't accept that has dogged the Palestinian leader, the Barak proposal many in Israel and the US called the most generous offer ever made to Palestinians, while the latter saw it as a plan for cutting up Palestinian territory in ways to preclude its being a viable state.

Since the outbreak of the intifada, Arafat has been treated as a pariah. The result has been military strikes against PA facilities - from headquarters to police stations and educational ministries; his confinement; and renewed assassination threats. Israel has said it had specific information, which it then presented to Washington, that Arafat was directing funds, weapons, and orders for attacks on Israelis.

"He is the only elected president in the Middle East and yet he is treated like this," says Saeb Erekat, the longtime Palestinian negotiator.

Arafat was elected Palestinian president in January 1996. For a while hopes were high, hotel and other construction soared, and expectations rose for tourism and other opportunities.

A month later, however, four suicide bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Israeli buses killed about 60 people. Those challenged Israelis' confidence in their peacemaking leadership and raised questions as to whether Arafat was capable of reining in his own militants.

As the peace process faltered, hawkish Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu was elected, and the process declined further.

Palestinian leaders say opinion polls show that a growing radicalization of the population - including support for suicide bombings - derives from the lack of a peace process, Israeli collective punishments affecting more families, continuing extrajudicial killings, and fundamentalists gaining support for their social agenda while the secular PA's capacity diminishes. Now they confront what they call the apartheid wall, the antiterrorism barrier that also carves off Palestinian lands and water resources.

From a pile of papers and mementos in front of him, Arafat picks up a framed print. It depicts the three kings heading to Bethlehem, stopped cold at the wall.

"Who can accept this?" he asks, questioning the world's lack of concern. "Who can accept that on Good Friday, Christians couldn't go to Jerusalem for Easter celebrations, or that the historic road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem has been cut off by the wall?"

Yet faced with a new US position contrary to long-accepted UN resolutions and international conventions underlying Palestinian rights - he vows to keep on, looking to the UN Security Council, the quartet of nations involved in the process, even to Israeli peace camps and Americans who support the two-state solution.

"The platform for the [1991] Madrid Peace Conference and the [2002] Beirut initiative from all the Arab countries - the first time they had accepted peace with Israel - must be respected," he insists.

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