Israel fumes as Arafat basks in international limelight

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The Independent Online

While Yasser Arafat staged his latest show for worldwide television at his Maqata headquarters in Ramallah yesterday, Israeli eyes were watching, unseen, from the eighth floor of an office block 400 yards away, across a rubble-strewn wasteland.

Just before 1.30pm - less than 24 hours after the Israeli Cabinet had vowed to "remove" him - the Palestinian Authority President walked down the steps outside his sandbagged, half-demolished office and slowly walked the 40 yards to Friday prayers in the compound's meeting room in a crush of aides, acolytes and, above all, camera crews.

Never mind that he had reportedly stormed out of this very room the day before, after being told by General Nasser Yusef, Gaza's former security chief and newly nominated as the Palestinian Authority's Interior Minister, that he was "the most incompetent revolutionary leader in history".

Yesterday all was serene. Just before he made his orchestrated entrance, the man the Israelis hold responsible for the past three bloody years turned and, smiling, gave his familiar, defiant and almost regal wave before going into kneel on his prayer mat in his honoured place in the middle of the front row. There was just a moment during prayers when, stretching his hands out, palms up in religious supplication, he seemed to glance unobtrusively at his wristwatch.

But look was all that the Israeli forces did from the offices of the Palestinian Authority's Culture Ministry that they commandeered on Thursday as a signal of hostile intent towards the PLO chairman. International pressure has increased on the Israelis not to enforce their threat, and the only physical danger Mr Arafat, 74, faced yesterday was having the breath squeezed out of him by television crews. The chaotic procession was repeated when he emerged from listening to a sermon by the Imam that had praised him in the most obsequious of terms, using Koranic texts at one point to compare his struggles to those of the Prophet against "unbelievers".

A few dozen young men following him from prayers rhythmically chanted slogans, "We will sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Abu Ammar [Mr Arafat's nom de guerre]", "The mountain will not be shaken by the wind" and "From siege to siege you are steadfast, Abu Ammar".

So the most immediate effect of the Israeli Cabinet's dramatic decision on Thursday to order the army to draw up plans for his expulsion or even - in theory - assassination was to present the PA President with a global photo- opportunity, one in which he revelled extravagantly.

The crowd was modest. The biggest flashpoint after Friday prayers was in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. After about 20,000 Palestinians had finished worshipping at the Al-Aqsa mosque, dozens of them threw stones on Jews worshipping at the Western Wall. Police moved into the mosque compound and used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrators. Four policemen suffered minor injuries.

At the Maqata, the peaceful crowd swelled to no more than a couple of hundred, after a small march from the centre of Ramallah. But the explanation for that is likely to be that the Israelis made no military moves against Mr Arafat yesterday and have so far given no sign of when they might do so.

American pressure may not, in the end, be decisive. But from the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, down, the US warned Israel not to fulfil a threat that the White House said would only give Mr Arafat "a wider stage". Daniel Kurtzner, the American ambassador, gave the same message to Shaul Mofaz, the Defence Minister.

America is also worried at the conflagration that exile for Mr Arafat could unleash. Last night the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - a militant faction tied to the Fatah organisation which is loyal to Mr Arafat - issued a threat of the vengeance it would exact if he was expelled or harmed. It may be as worried by the difficulties that any PA government would have in staying in office if Mr Arafat was exiled.

There were signs last night that Thursday's cabinet decision might actually have been too open-ended for some of the hardliners, who would have preferred an unconditional decision to expel Mr Arafat. With officials saying that the decision hangs a "sword of Damocles" over the PLO chairman, its implementation could yet depend on whether the carnage of last Tuesday's double suicide bombing is repeated.

On the one hand, the wording of the decision makes it possible for Israel to delay almost indefinitely. On the other, it means that one of the most right-wing governments in the history of the Israeli state has given itself the authority to act against Mr Arafat if it judges that the circumstances demand it. And the government could yet become boxed in to taking this step because of its own rhetoric.

Nothing is easily predictable in the current crisis. But one possibility is that in return for bowing to US pressure and not expelling Mr Arafat, the government will implement the threat in Thursday's communiqué to step up its military campaign against militant Palestinian factions. Either way, US and European hopes of salvaging their cherished road-map to peace are hanging on a slender thread.