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Israel Vows to Find Way to Expel Arafat

September 12, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Making its most explicit threat yet to banish Yasser Arafat from the Palestinian territories, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government Thursday branded the Palestinian Authority president an obstacle to peace and declared that Israel would find a way to remove him.

Sharon and his security advisors, meeting in a closed-door session two days after a pair of suicide bombings killed 15 Israelis, agreed in principle that Arafat should be sent into exile but did not set a timetable, according to Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Word of the threat spread rapidly in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Arafat has been confined to his shell-battered, rubble-strewn headquarters for nearly two years.

Honking car horns and banging pots, thousands of demonstrators -- including entire families, with children carried on their parents' shoulders -- descended after dark on the Muqata, as Arafat's compound is known, chanting slogans. "With our blood and souls we will defend you, Abu Amar!" they shouted, using Arafat's nom de guerre.

Arafat, dressed in his trademark fatigues and checkered kaffiyeh, emerged from the compound's main building, flashing the victory sign and then giving a somewhat disjointed speech.

"My brave ones, my beloved ones," he said, alternately speaking through a bullhorn, blowing kisses and blinking in the glare of television lights and camera flashes. "This people will never bend to pressure -- we will continue the march to Jerusalem!"

In the Gaza Strip, gunmen affiliated with Arafat's Fatah faction fired into the air, summoning crowds into the street to wave giant portraits of Arafat and denounce Israel. "Sharon, you will pay!" some shouted.

Analysts long have argued that deporting Arafat could trigger a burst of instability, not only in the Palestinian territories but also elsewhere in the Middle East.

Palestinians view the 74-year-old leader as a symbol of their decades-long struggle for statehood, and while his people sometimes resent his autocratic rule, previous Israeli moves against him have only increased his popularity.

Earlier in the day, in what Israeli security sources described as a pointed message to Arafat, reconnaissance troops took up positions in three buildings overlooking his damaged compound, while an Israeli F-16 fighter jet circled high overhead. Arafat insisted he was not worried.

"This is my homeland -- no one can kick me out," he told journalists. "They can kill me," he added, glancing skyward. "They have bombs."

Israeli officials said it was decided at the security meeting to instruct the army to prepare a plan for a forced deportation. But a senior Israeli security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that elements of such a plan were already in place and that, if given the order, the army was ready to act.

Arafat, a onetime partner in peace negotiations, is now viewed by Israel as a driving force behind nearly three years of unrelenting conflict. Israel and the United States believe the Palestinian leader has given at least tacit support to terrorist attacks by militant groups, including suicide bombings, that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

In the last several weeks, Israeli frustration has boiled over with the bloody breakdown of a unilateral truce declared by the militant groups; the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority prime minister who had been installed with Washington's approval; and the near-total collapse of a U.S.-backed peace initiative.

U.S. and Israeli officials have tried to isolate Arafat, and his status has been a source of discord between the Bush administration and other international sponsors of the peace plan.

But Washington has consistently urged Israel to refrain from expelling him, arguing that such a step would be counterproductive.

"Our view on Mr. Arafat hasn't changed," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "Our view is that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution. At the same time, we think it would not be helpful to expel him because it would just give him another stage to play on."

One Israeli official, carefully watching the language used in Washington, noted that the U.S. admonition was not particularly harsh. But a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington had been unambiguous.

"We have made it quite clear that it would be distinctly unhelpful to move against Arafat," the official said.

Palestinian officials appealed for U.S. protection for Arafat.

"This is a piece of escalation by Israel, and President Bush should force Israel to stop these irresponsible and provocative acts," said Nabil abu Rudaineh, a senior advisor to Arafat.

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