A resilient Arafat endures despite thumb of Sharon

Isolated and under siege, one Palestinian remains the symbol for his people

April 04, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is living in two windowless rooms of his ruined presidential compound, eating canned meatloaf and reading by the light of a flashlight provided by the Israeli army.

Troops under the command of his longtime enemy, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, idle outside in their tanks, the turrets aimed at Arafat's headquarters on the northern edge of Ramallah, the Palestinian capital in all but name.

The 73-year Palestinian leader, the symbol of his people's struggle for a state, is under siege for the second time by Sharon, who hoped to isolate him from supporters but now wants to expel him permanently from the region.

Arafat escaped an 88-day Israeli siege in Lebanon in 1983 by agreeing to go into exile in Tunisia. But even there, he remained the sole recognized leader of the Palestinians - and a remarkable survivor and enduring symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

This latest showdown between Arafat and Sharon entered its sixth day yesterday, with no end in sight. Arafat is managing to cope, aides say, but his circumstances are dire - sporadic electricity, scarce food and medical supplies, no telephone service and no running water. But aides say Arafat, though haggard, is proving resilient.

"The situation is very difficult," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and one of Arafat's top aides who talks to him daily by cell phone. "But he is talking to world leaders, and he is running everything."

As Israeli and U.S. leaders try to pressure Arafat to renounce terror as a political tool, he sits at a desk with Israeli soldiers a few feet beyond the remaining walls of his office and talks about dying for his cause. A submachine gun lies within reach on his desk.

Arafat has managed to give several typically rambling interviews, most of them by phone, but sounds more fatalistic in each one. He now ends almost every conversation by saying he wants to be "a martyr, a martyr, a martyr and a martyr."

His mantra is now, "To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions," which Israelis interpret as his way of indirectly dispatching suicide bombers, contradicting the stated goal of the Palestinian Authority to support an unconditional cease-fire.

There are various opinions as to whether Sharon's strategy will work. Arafat feels it is he who has leverage, as the images of him trapped in his compound have sparked repeated calls from the international community for Israel to end its siege.

Israeli officials insist that Arafat's reign has effectively ended and that new Palestinian leaders could emerge to broker peace talks. Arafat, they say, is unwilling and incapable of stopping terror strikes against Israel.

But Palestinian officials, and Israeli intelligence officers, say that Arafat will remain his people's leader until he dies. He embodies the Palestinian movement and thus looms larger than his position as elected chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

And there remains a serious question about what kind of Palestinian leaders Sharon expects to take Arafat's place. Israel's military campaign has expanded to target Arafat's closest confidants, who are accused of overseeing and financing militant groups.

This week, Israeli tanks nearly destroyed the Palestinian security headquarters just outside Ramallah, where they said dozens of suspected terrorists had taken refuge. The five-story hilltop fortress was built mostly with American money for the West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, who has close ties to the CIA and had been seen by U.S. officials as a possible successor to Arafat.

Rajoub for the most part had stayed on the conflict's sidelines and kept his 30,000-strong police force out of the fighting. Hours before the army besieged the headquarters, an Israeli intelligence official said Rajoub was not among the Palestinian leaders wanted for arrest.

Now, even Rajoub talks openly about fighting back, though he helped broker a U.S.-orchestrated truce in which more than 200 of the people holed up in his compound surrendered to the Israeli army.

The question is, what happens when the guns finally fall silent? And what will become of Arafat?

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Arafat will remain in his compound, will not accept Sharon's offer of exile, and will either die or emerge strong from his predicament.

"Nobody can exile me or expel me," Arafat has said. "They can kill me, though."

Aides describe Arafat as resilient, but tired, prepared to fight to the death, but also despondent and angry. Nothing brightens his spirit more than receiving visitors, which is why Israel has barred European diplomats and U.S. peace envoy Anthony C. Zinni from going to Ramallah.

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