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Arafat Lives With Enemy Breathing Down His Neck

Scene: As Israeli forces hunker down, life inside Ramallah compound has become a waiting game.

April 04, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yasser Arafat spends his days on the telephone, at least when he can get a dial tone. He sleeps little, eats less.

With him inside his battered, besieged headquarters is a motley crew of foreign activists, a large contingent of bodyguards, a couple of trusted aides and wanted criminals, and the presidential bagpipe players.

Just outside the door sits the Israeli army.

Two decades after Ariel Sharon helped evict Arafat from his Beirut domain, the Israeli prime minister has once again locked down hisarchnemesis. Wednesday was Day 6 of the siege on the Palestinian Authority president, part of a massive reoccupation of the West Bank by Israeli forces pursuing what they call an anti-terrorist campaign.

Initially, Arafat used his imprisonment as a platform. He granted media interviews and mugged for the cameras as a martyr-in-waiting. His suddenly renewed celebrity infuriated Sharon, and Israeli forces were ordered to put a hermetic clamp on Arafat's compound.

Arafat so deftly played the public relations game that the influential Israeli daily Haaretz wondered whether Sharon would end up exorcising his private ghost or beatifying him.

In the last few days, Arafat hasn't appeared on television, except for a phone-in interview, and journalists' access has been all but cut off. At least physically, Arafat is isolated within a single building at the center of the sprawling compound. Politically, however, his ordeal has enhanced his stature with many in the Palestinian territories and in other parts of the world--at least in the short term.

Inside the compound, Arafat's associates and supporters have barricaded the windows, and they take turns keeping guard while settling into a kind of routine of captivity. The atmosphere, as described by several people in telephone interviews, seems part bunker, part college dorm.

Some people sleep in hallways and on the floor. Food, heavy on pita bread and boiled potatoes, is in short supply and must be rationed. The bagpipers don't even have their instruments. A lot of time is spent keeping up one another's spirits.

Nerves are clearly fraying. Toilets are backing up. And Israeli forces have placed barbed wire around the building where Arafat and the rest are confined.

"It is still very difficult," Arafat's office manager, Zafir Nobani, said by phone. "We are running out of water, and the phones don't work. We are also low on food. We can't move--nobody can move."

Nobani said Arafat remains well and in high spirits. But the Palestinian leader has only a two-day supply of medicine, Nobani said. He wouldn't specify what kind of medicine the 72-year-old Arafat needs.

(In Jordan, Dr. Ashraf Kurdi, the neurologist who regularly examines Arafat, told Associated Press that Arafat's routine checkup is four months overdue and that the Palestinian leader should have one as soon as possible.)

Photographs show Arafat working at a desk, a gun by his side. His statements reflect a tone that is increasingly defiant and fatalistic. He would rather die for the cause than surrender, he says repeatedly, always adding, "Martyr, martyr, martyr, martyr."

Arafat whiles away the hours with occasional praying, reading the Koran, receiving the phone calls that make it through and calling out whenever he gets a line. Nobani said Arafat communicates with regional Palestinian governors to keep abreast of Israeli military actions and with European officials to prod world reaction.

Arafat has a mobile phone, but Nobani and others inside the compound are convinced that the Israelis are blocking the signal.

"The connection is very difficult," Nobani said. "There is no signal."

Israeli government officials said Arafat's entourage, which reportedly numbers about 300, exaggerates the hardships for political gain. The army released a list detailing supplies it says it shipped to Arafat on Tuesday, including 600 pieces of bread, 13 cans of hummus, 66 packages of yellow cheese, 55 cans of sardines and 145 pounds of coffee.

The Israelis say that when Arafat gave a now-famous television interview by candlelight the other day, he in fact had electricity but chose candles for effect. Those inside the compound didn't comment on the incident, but they said electricity comes and goes.

The odd addition to the compound's inhabitants is the foreign delegation. Thirty-four peace and anti-globalization activists from half a dozen countries remain inside. They are part of a larger group that, to the shock of many, marched past the Israeli tanks and infantry Sunday and made themselves at home at Arafat's side. They brought a CNN crew, and the images from their visit ricocheted around the world.

The activists said their idea was to serve as human shields for Arafat, whom many thought Sharon intended to kill.

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