Israel draws up plans to remove Arafat

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Cabinet raised the stakes in its confrontation with Yasser Arafat last night by ordering the army to draw up plans to "remove" him from his besieged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The 11-member emergency cabinet, convened after 15 people died in two suicide bombings on Tuesday, decided by nine votes to two to brush aside warnings by Washington against an expulsion, which would provoke a furious reaction by Palestinians. In an early sign of that reaction Nabil Sha'ath, the Palestinian Authority's Foreign Minister, said it was a "declaration of war" against the PA President and that it was a decision to kill him.

Although expulsion appeared the likelier course, the formal wording of the cabinet statement left the method of his removal open. It said that Mr Arafat was "an absolute obstacle to the process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel will remove this obstacle in a manner, at a time and in ways to be decided separately".

Earlier, Israeli troops commandeered the top floor of a building close to Mr Arafat's Maqata police headquarters in what army sources described as a "message and a signal" to Mr Arafat. The statement appeared to ensure that the threat of expulsion will hang over Mr Arafat as the Israelis step up their pressure to force the Authority to arrest and disarm militant factions responsible for more than 100 suicide bombings since the mid-1990s.

The Cabinet stopped well short of setting a date for the implementation of the threat, and there were signs that some ministers might have liked to go further. There has been no sign so far that Ahmed Qureia, the incoming Prime Minister appointed by Mr Arafat, is prepared unilaterally to crack down on militants.