Friday, 12 September 2003

Israel decides to uproot Arafat

Sharon's Cabinet gives go-ahead for security services to 'remove' Palestinian chief

Friday, September 12, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- The Israeli government threatened Thursday to "remove" Yasser Arafat, saying he was sabotaging the peace process, and gave its security services a green light to move against the Palestinian leader "in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing."

Thousands of Palestinians rushed to Arafat's compound in Ramallah to protect their leader, fearing Israel would expel or even kill him, but most analysts doubted that Israel would defy U.S. wishes and take any immediate action against Arafat.

The decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's security Cabinet came in the shadow of a pair of suicide bombings Tuesday in which 15 Israelis were killed and dozens wounded. The bloodshed, coming less than a month after 22 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a Jerusalem bus, has brought Israeli anger at Arafat to the boiling point.

The 13-member security body said events of recent days had "proven again that Yasser Arafat is a complete obstacle to any process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians" and added that "Israel will work to remove this obstacle." The statement effectively gives Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz blanket approval to move against Arafat without seeking further Cabinet approval.

A majority of the right-wing ministers attending the emergency meeting supported the expulsion of Arafat, according to Israeli television reports, and some even called for his death. But the Cabinet put off any immediate action to give Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia a last chance to clamp down on militants and to placate the United States, which opposes any move to send Arafat into exile.

"The government needed to say something about Arafat to satisfy strong domestic political pressures," said Professor Gerald Steinberg of the Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. But he cautioned that "exiling Arafat clearly has a big downside because he will be able to rally support abroad and continue directing the traffic."

"I think the government will decide to keep him here incommunicado where no one will be allowed to see him," he added, "so he will disappear as a factor, as an influence in the process."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We think it would not be helpful to expel him because it would just give him another stage to play on." Israeli media said U.S. officials had called Sharon to underscore the point.

The pressure to do more is intense, however. At least four Cabinet ministers and one of the country's daily newspapers called for Arafat's assassination.

"He is a murderer, the leader of a murderous terrorist gang," said Education Minister Limor Livnat, comparing Arafat to a string of terrorists, including Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was targeted in an Israeli assassination bid last Saturday. "There is no difference between bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Sheikh Yassin and Arafat."

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post urged Israel to "kill as many of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as possible, as quickly as possible, while minimizing collateral damage." The newspaper added: "And we must kill Yasser Arafat, because the world leaves us no alternative."

However, Steinberg dismissed the notion that Israel would kill the Palestinian leader, saying the political cost would be too high. Instead, he predicted that the singling out of Arafat was a signal that Israel sought to replace the Palestinian Authority government with another more to its liking.

Palestinian analyst Khaled Abu Toameh said Arafat's supporters were convinced their leader was now under physical threat.

"It's nothing but a warning, but the Palestinians clearly take it very seriously," he said. "They genuinely believe that Sharon is determined this time to get rid of their leader. Many think it could happen tonight -- that's why they came (out) in the hundreds. This will only boost Arafat's popularity in the Palestinian street."

Abu Toameh agreed that removing Arafat effectively would mean the end of the Palestinian Authority. "It's impossible to see how the Palestinian Authority can function without Arafat," he said. "He makes all the important decisions personally."

Qureia, the incoming prime minister, called on the international community to intervene. "It is an unwise decision," he said. "It will re-escalate the situation (and) put all efforts in danger. "

The wording of the Cabinet decision, like the decision by the government to declare Arafat "irrelevant" in December 2001, left observers confused about what, if anything, will happen next. Israeli politicians have a long tradition of appeasing critics by promising to take actions that are not carried out, and Sharon himself came to power three years ago on a promise to end the intifada.

However, the Cabinet gave a hint of its direction by asking the army to prepare and present plans for Arafat's "removal," leaving open the question of whether that meant exile, assassination or simply intensifying his isolation in his battered Mukataah headquarters in Ramallah, where he has been confined by Israeli sieges and threats for nearly two years.

Gaby Ashkenazi, a commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank, said the army had "several plans ready and waiting to go" with regard to Arafat. "One of them is labeled 'Arrest of Arafat and his removal from the Mukataah' ," said Ashkenazi.

The Cabinet also approved a call-up of reserves, which will take several weeks, indicating that Israel is preparing for a major military operation.

Arafat himself appeared defiant before the crowd that flocked to his compound, chanting: "With our blood, with our souls we will redeem you."

Flashing his trademark double-handed V-for-victory sign and a huge smile, Arafat addressed the crowd through a bullhorn, exhorting them to sacrifice "martyrs by the millions" on the road to Jerusalem -- the kind of language Israel considers an encouragement to launch more suicide bombings.

"They can kill me with bombs, but they can't deport me," Arafat told the crowd. "I won't leave Ramallah."

Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres called the Cabinet move "a terrible mistake," and an opinion poll on Israel Radio showed only 38 percent of Israelis favor forcing Arafat out of the country.

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