Unwelcome mat awaits Arafat in Jerusalem

May 30, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- If Yasser Arafat wants to return to the city he says he was born in, he may be greeted at the entrance to Jerusalem by angry mobs led by the city's mayor.

Right-wing Israelis, spurred on by Jerusalem's new mayor, Ehud Olmert, have vowed to block any attempt by the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization to visit Jerusalem.

There are no announced plans yet for Mr. Arafat to try to visit, but already they are laying out an unwelcome mat:

* A deputy mayor of the city last week offered the city's top award to anyone who would "liquidate" Mr. Arafat.

* A Jewish settler's group proposed offering a 100,000 shekel reward (about $33,000) for the capture of Mr. Arafat "dead or alive."

* Mr. Olmert has vowed to rally 500,000 demonstrators to block Mr. Arafat's arrival, warning ominously of a massacre with "10 times as many victims" as the Hebron shooting Feb. 25 that killed 30 Muslims.

"This is something that would be potentially explosive" if Mr. Arafat arrives, said Aliza Kristt, a spokeswoman for Mr. Olmert, who is traveling abroad. "It would turn the city upside-down and inside-out."

Mr. Arafat is expected to arrive in June in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip, the first areas of Palestinian autonomy under the Israel-PLO agreement signed in September.

It will be the first time the man who led a 30-year struggle of violence and diplomacy for the Palestinian cause will be in the West Bank since shortly after Israel's occupation in 1967.

He has made no request to visit Jerusalem, although he has often used the image of a return to the city as a rhetorical rallying cry.

Mr. Arafat claims that he was born in Jerusalem's Old City in a poor neighborhood -- now demolished -- near the Western Wall, a site holy to Jews. Other evidence suggests that he was born in Cairo, and the issue never has been settled.

Israeli officials expect eventually that they will face an attempt by Arafat to pray in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, Islam's third-holiest site and destination for Muslim pilgrims.

It will put them in an awkward spot. Israel has long boasted that it guarantees freedom of religion at all the holy shrines in RTC Jerusalem, including Christian and Muslim shrines. The government would be hard-pressed to deny a prayer visit by a leader with whom they have signed a peace accord.

But such a visit would be a large event for the Arabs here, and could turn into a triumphal entry of the Palestinian leader to a city he has vowed would be the Palestinian capital.

Jerusalem was physically divided between Arabs and Jews until 1967, when Israel evicted Jordanian troops from East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. Although about 160,000 Arabs remain there, Israel has officially annexed Jerusalem and has sworn that it will be the "eternal, undivided capital" of the Jewish state, a claim that most countries, including the United States, do not recognize.

Palestinians have not relinquished their claim to Jerusalem, and a draft Palestinian constitution divulged last week refers to Jerusalem as the eventual capital. Israel and the PLO have agreed that it is an "unresolved issue" to be on the table of final negotiations scheduled to start in two years.

In the meantime, the Israeli government announced plans this weekend to limit the activities of Palestinian offices in Jerusalem, fearing the Palestinians will set up a capital-in-waiting. Many Palestinian organizations are based in East Jerusalem, and the Orient House headquarters of Faisal al-Husseini has been serving as an unofficial embassy for the PLO.

Any hopes of Mr. Arafat to visit Jerusalem will be complicated by a speech that he made May 10 to Muslims in Johannesburg, which was secretly recorded and played widely in Israel. In it, Mr. Arafat declared "Jerusalem is not the permanent state of Israel, no. It is the permanent state of Palestine." He urged Muslims to "start the Jihad [holy war] to liberate Jerusalem."

"He's not coming to Jerusalem to pray. He's coming to continue his call to conquer Jerusalem," said Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the Judea and Samaria Council, the main organization of Jewish settlers.

The group recently asked Israel's attorney general whether it was legal to publish the offer of a reward for Mr. Arafat. The offer said: "whoever brings him in dead or alive will receive a prize of 100,000 shekels." The attorney general said no.

"The Israeli public is being conditioned to relate to this man as a public figure, like a mayor," said Ms. Tayar. "We wanted to remind them he is a murderer, a terrorist, the father of all terrorists."

Similar, though less lucrative, offers have been heard from others. Rehavam Ze'evi, a right-wing member of parliament, said that Mr. Arafat would not get out alive if he visited Jerusalem.

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