February 25, 2002
By Matthew Kalman
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- For the first time in as long as anyone can recall, Yasser Arafat has a fixed routine.
The famously secret movements of the man who rarely slept two nights in the same place for fear of assassination have become public knowledge now that he is limiting himself to a square half-mile -- the size of his headquarters -- in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Since Dec. 3, when Israeli missiles destroyed his helicopters, Arafat has been confined to Ramallah and has remained in the El-Mukata'ah presidential compound. For those 2 1/2 months, Israeli tanks have been stationed a few yards from his office. The 72-year-old Palestinian leader has become the most famous prisoner in the Middle East.
Israel says Arafat can leave any time he wants; all he has to do is arrest the men responsible for the death of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was gunned down at a Jerusalem hotel in October. Arafat says he is unable -- the Israelis say he is unwilling -- to catch the assassins. So he remains in Ramallah.
No longer able to roam the world (Arafat claims to have visited every country except Australia), unable to partake in international meetings and red-carpet receptions, Arafat presides mostly over a series of rooms. The change in Arafat's lifestyle is striking. His movements, once confidential and always unexpected, now are predictable and even choreographed.
He begins the day about 11 a.m. in the large new meeting hall of El Mukata'ah. He grants a public audience every morning to hundreds of Palestinian well-wishers at gatherings orchestrated by the newly created Committee of Popular Protection for the Palestinian National Project, which Arafat chairs.
''There are daily popular marches to the president's office and to the governate in support of the president and also to emphasize the steadfastness of the Palestinian people,'' says Nahla Qoura, a leader of Arafat's Fatah movement who helps organize the rallies. Many in the audience are employees of the Palestinian Authority.
'Arafat will defeat you'
Each morning, the crowd gathers in nearby Manara Square and marches to the compound carrying banners and posters of Arafat. The people chant and sing as they are shepherded into the conference hall.
The cheerleader, a short, bespectacled man in his 50s, is hoisted up by the crowd and produces a sheet of paper from his pocket. He is Abu Ali Muqbel, a Palestinian poet. A year ago, he was imprisoned and his head was shaved as punishment for chanting anti-Arafat couplets. Now he appears every day at the appointed time to lead the invited crowds in praising the Palestinian leader.
''With our blood, with our souls, we will redeem Abu Amar!'' he reads, invoking Arafat's nom de guerre. Turning his words on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he says, ''Oh, Sharon, oh Sharon, you coward, Arafat will defeat you!''
The crowd roars its approval as Arafat, standing on a table protected with tissue paper, flashes a V-sign for victory. Smiling, he asks the crowd for calm and launches into his daily monologue.
''You see the tanks across the street?'' he asks in Arabic. ''This is the same tank Sharon sent to me in Beirut.'' As defense minister in 1982, Sharon ordered the invasion of Lebanon that resulted in the expulsion of Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization from their headquarters in Beirut.
''He didn't frighten me then, and he doesn't scare me now,'' Arafat says. ''I don't care even if the tank comes to my bedroom. Palestinian stones can defeat these tanks and those who are behind them.''
The crowd goes wild. Within minutes, some will be outside, throwing stones at the Israeli tanks in what has become a daily ritual. Some youths form a circle in front of Arafat and begin chanting: ''Oh suiciders, oh suiciders, give us more blood in Jaffa Street! Give us more attacks!'' The reference is to one of Jerusalem's major thoroughfares; Jaffa Street has been the site of three suicide attacks in the past six months.
Arafat, who condemns suicide attacks in daily press interviews, looks on with a huge smile on his face. ''We will march toward Jerusalem, millions will be martyred,'' he says, pounding the lectern. The crowd roars its approval.
This morning, he deviates slightly from the script and does not begin chanting ''Jihad, jihad, jihad,'' the call for holy war, which is broadcast regularly on Palestinian television.
Then Arafat, surrounded by bodyguards, heads for his office on the second floor. He receives visitors in private -- diplomats, Palestinian officials and others -- until 3 p.m., when he takes his midafternoon nap. He will not be awakened unless it is urgent. After 6 p.m., Arafat is back at his desk, plowing through a pile of notes on small pieces of paper written by aides, supplicants from various ministries and organizations, and private individuals.
He signs each chit and hands it to an assistant. An aide says half-jokingly that Arafat has two pens, signing in red to indicate someone will get money, signing in blue if the request is to be ignored.
Hummus and politics
By early evening, the office of Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh is flooded with interview requests from reporters from all over the world. Dozens wait at the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah, hoping to be selected. The chosen few are taken to the presidential compound. Arafat's evening performance begins after 9 p.m. and is strictly by invitation.
As dozens of gray-haired, moustachioed, chain-smoking officials go in and out of Arafat's office, visitors are escorted to a large, empty room nearby. On one wall hangs a huge picture of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem -- a symbol of the current uprising, which was two days old when Israeli police shot dead seven Palestinian demonstrators in the mosque compound in September 2000.
A table large enough to seat 20 dominates the room. Cheeses, cucumbers, pickles and hummus fill dishes set out. The meal begins with zucchini soup. When everyone is seated, Arafat enters. There is no fixed seating arrangement. Waiters dressed in white shirts and black waistcoats hover. The guests are an eclectic mix of senior Palestinian officials, journalists and special visitors. This evening, there are three different media crews and a couple of people hoping for a private meeting. There are no bodyguards.
Around the table on different nights are such familiar faces as PLO deputy leader Abu Mazen, West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Mohammed Shtayeh, director of the Palestinian Economic Development Corp. Arafat says Mazen is a possible successor; Barghouti is wanted by Israel for allegedly planning several murders and terror attacks.
Arafat enters, sits and without a word grabs a piece of lettuce and begins eating. There is small talk. He is asked whether he remembers his early career as an engineer in Kuwait. A smile spreads across his face, and he reminisces.
In front of Arafat is a dish filled with what looks like molasses. It is a special dish made with honey, he explains to one of his visitors. ''This is very healthy, it makes you strong,'' he says as he dips some bread into the mixture and hands a small piece to each of the guests around him. It is a ritual he repeats every evening.
Suddenly, Arafat switches the conversation to politics and what he calls Israel's destruction of the Palestinian economy.
''Do you know that the Israelis have uprooted 50% of the olive trees in the West Bank and Gaza? These trees were the only source of income for tens of thousands of families.'' His assertion goes unchallenged, even though it's believed to be an exaggeration. The correspondents don't want to jeopardize their interviews.
Shifting to Arabic from English, Arafat continues, ''Add to this that they are holding more than $1 billion in tax revenue which they collect for us'' -- a reference to taxes on Palestinian goods and services that Israel stopped transferring to the Palestinian Authority to protest the violence.
As he talks, he sinks back in his chair, but his tunic, supported by the rigid bulletproof vest he wears underneath, remains where it is. It is as if his chest has suddenly inflated. Beneath the flak jacket, he appears painfully thin. His hands shake uncontrollably and he stammers even in Arabic. There are rumors, consistently denied, that Arafat suffers from Parkinson's disease and is still affected by injuries suffered in a plane crash in 1992.
Arafat's apparent ill health and advancing age have fueled private speculation about who will succeed him, but no Palestinian dared raise the subject in public until two weeks ago, when Arafat set out the constitutional procedure. It appears he is not yet ready to relinquish power. The Palestinian leader was involved in a confrontation last week with his main security chief, Col. Jibril Rajoub, during which Arafat reportedly drew his gun and accused Rajoub of seeking the top position.
After an hour, Abu Rudeineh announces it is time for the more formal individual interviews. Arafat is escorted from the room and into his office. A doctor who has been on hand follows with a medical bag. No one will discuss what medication the president is taking. As the interviewer is admitted, Abu Rudeineh commands: ''No questions about his private life. No questions about his wife, his daughter, where he sleeps or where he showers. Be serious, talk politics.''
Arafat spends up to an hour with each reporter, repeating prepared mini-speeches he has been reciting for weeks. He vows that Palestinians will ultimately have their own independent state.
Any journalist who departs from the script is thrown out. When the BBC's Lyse Doucet dares to question whether Arafat has really imprisoned Islamic terrorists, he angrily declares the interview over and has her escorted from the building.
The last journalists leave at 1 a.m. Arafat returns to his office and continues his paperwork until about 3 a.m., when he goes to sleep, according to his aides.
Efraim Inbar, chairman of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, says he believes Arafat will remain in power until he dies but will never establish a Palestinian state.
''Arafat is such a towering figure in the Palestinian national movement that he will never be replaced, nor allow anyone else to develop,'' Inbar says. ''He succeeded in bringing the Palestinian issue to the attention of the world, and he brought the PLO to Palestine itself. But he failed to establish a state even when he had the opportunity to do so.''
At 11 the next morning, Arafat will awake to another noisy demonstration of supporters. Yet another group of reporters will make their way to the Grand Park Hotel, ready to be charmed and dined by the king of Ramallah.