Besieged Arafat 'is prepared to become a martyr'

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The Independent Online

An Egyptian television correspondent wrapped up an interview yesterday with Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters, besieged by Israeli tanks, by telling the Palestinian leader: "I hope you'll be safe, Mr President."

Mr Arafat snapped back: "No, don't say that. I want to be a martyr."

The rhetoric is familiar enough but now, more than ever, Arab and foreign observers are taking the threat seriously. They don't expect Mr Arafat to kill himself, but they believe he has reached the end of his particular road and that he is reconciled to it.

Yesterday's Israeli offensive on Mr Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah was ostensibly a retaliation for "the Passover massacre", a Palestinian suicide bombing on Wednesday night that killed 20 Israelis in the coastal resort of Netanya.

After the Israeli cabinet declared the Palestinian leader an "enemy" who had to be "isolated", Israeli troops preceded by about 100 tanks and armoured personnel carriers advanced on Mr Arafat's Ramallah compound, destroyed its perimeter fence and engaged in fierce gun battles with his security detail.

Two dozen tanks were deployed inside the sprawling compound. They fired heavy rounds into the Palestinian intelligence headquarters in the complex, severely damaging it, and troops stormed a lockup adjacent to Mr Arafat's three-storey building, the headquarters where he has received world dignitaries including Bill Clinton. It was the closest Israeli forces have come to the Palestinian leader in 18 months of fighting. Israel has confined Mr Arafat to the building for four months, barring him from travelling.

As the fighting raged around him – killing one bodyguard and injuring 20 – the 72-year-old Palestinian leader huddled with his advisers in a windowless ground-floor office "in good spirits", according to senior aide Nabil Abu Rdainah.

With a sub-machine gun placed next to him on a table, he spoke to world leaders and Arab TV stations by telephone, his papers in front of him lit by an aide's flashlight.

Although Israeli officials insisted they were not trying to kill him, Palestinian officials said his life was in danger. Israel's "endgame is to kill Arafat", said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

"No Palestinian and no one in the Arab nation will surrender or kneel," Mr Arafat told interviewers. "This brutal aggression is a response to the Arab summit in Beirut," he told Abu Dhabi television. "This is the Israeli response to any peace attempt. Because they don't want peace, they don't want peace."

But while Mr Arafat's tone with Western interviewers was defiant, protesting that he had offered Israel peace and been turned down, the focus with Arabic television stations was apocalyptic. He linked his destiny with that of past and present heroes of the Palestinian liberation struggle.

"God," he begged, "Let me taste martyrdom as you made them taste it." Speaking to Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news station viewed throughout the Arabic-speaking world, Mr Arafat said: "The Israelis want me as a prisoner, or a fugitive, or dead. But I tell them I want to be a martyr." Citing the Koran, he added: "'The faithful will enter the mosque as they did in days gone by.' This is the role of martyrdom. We have chosen it."

Mr Arafat appealed to Arabs, Muslims and Christians everywhere. The Palestinians, he contended, were defending the Holy Land for all of them. "We are defending not only Palestinian rights," he said, "not only Arab and Islamic rights, but we are defending all the freedom fighters in the world. This is an order from God."

Nor does Mr Arafat expect to march alone into Paradise. "No single Palestinian," he vowed, "Will kneel or surrender. We are marching to Jerusalem as millions of martyrs."

Mahdi Abdel Hadi, president of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said in Ramallah yesterday: "I see Mr Arafat as an historical leader accepting the challenge of martyrdom. Ariel Sharon wants to end him, and he knows it.

"He's telling his own people that he has fulfilled his mission. He's telling them that he never compromised in his demand for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, on a right of return for the refugees, on the evacuation of all the Jewish settlements. That's how he wants to be remembered."

Dr Abdel Hadi suggested that Mr Arafat had prepared the ground for some time. He has named his two heirs, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), to take over the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation after him.

Mr Arafat's martyrdom comments, broadcast by television to Gaza, fuelled emotion at a rally in which thousands of Palestinians marched to show support, saying a "river of blood" from suicide attacks would flow if Israel hurt him.

In Ramallah, Moussa Khouli, a 19-year-old Palestinian fighter carrying an assault rifle near Manara Square, said: "We want to be martyrs, we want to fight. We'll fight until martyrdom, we have no fear".

A Palestinian woman who identified herself only as Dalia said she was against suicide bombing, but "the Israelis are killing us, killing our children, besieging us".

"For 18 months I have not seen my relatives in Nablus. Most people want to end the violence, but we don't want to live under Jews. The Jews hate Arafat, they want to kill him," she added.