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Israelis approve Arafat's 'removal'

But Palestinian says, 'No one can kick me out'

Yasser Arafat greets supporters outside his office in Ramallah.
Yasser Arafat greets supporters outside his office in Ramallah.
Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Israeli government decided on Thursday night to "remove" Yasser Arafat, authorizing actions in the future to exile, jail or possibly kill him.

The decision, which followed two Hamas suicide bombings that killed 15 people on Tuesday, was unlikely to be put into action immediately, senior Israeli officials said.

"It's a Damocles sword over his head," a senior Israeli official said.

Speaking before the Israeli decision, on the steps of his ruined compound here, Arafat, the Palestinian leader, sounded a defiant note. "This is my homeland," he said. "This is the terra sancta. No one can kick me out."

Indeed, the decision, at least in the short term, cast Arafat in a favorite's role, as an embattled leader sharing the suffering of his people. Honking horns and chanting their solidarity with the 74-year-old leader, Palestinians marched under a full moon to the compound Thursday night.

After the Israeli decision, Zakariya al-Agha, a top official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said: "President Arafat will resist any attempt to expel him, even by force. He prefers to be a martyr rather than be expelled." He spoke as he left Arafat's office.

Rather than heightening tension, the decision, at least for the moment, relieved it. Arafat's guards said they had been braced for Israeli action on Thursday night. "Don't worry," Nabil Aburdeineh, Arafat's top aide, said with a grin after the Israeli announcement. "Nothing will happen."

The senior Israeli official called the move "a standing Cabinet decision that says that Israel will take action." He said top Israeli officials now had new flexibility to act against Arafat. He said that action might include expulsion or "neutralizing him, constraining his movements."

Other Israeli officials have spoken of walling Arafat into his compound here and cutting his communication — in essence, jailing him where he already lives. One Western diplomat described the Israeli move on Thursday night as hortatory.

The Israeli decision declared: "The events of the last few days have again proven that Yasser Arafat is an absolute obstacle to the whole process of peace and compromise between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel will act to remove this obstacle in a manner, time and way that will be decided separately."

The decision also authorized constant military action "day or night" against militant groups.

In Washington, the State Department expressed the hope that Arafat would not be expelled. "Our view on Mr. Arafat hasn't changed, and our view is that he is part of the problem, not part of the solution," said Richard Boucher, a department spokesman. "At the same time, we think it would not be helpful to expel him, because it would just give him another stage to play on."

As Israeli security leaders arrived at their decision, Palestinian officials were dickering here over the composition of a new government to fill a vacuum in Palestinian leadership and diplomacy. Ahmed Qureia, the new Palestinian prime minister, said on Wednesday that he would form a small emergency government of six ministers and present it to parliament on Thursday, but other Palestinian politicians blocked him.

Diplomats from the so-called Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — had pressed for the emergency Cabinet, and as the proposal died they threw up their hands over preventing a new surge of violence. "Everyone's blaming Arafat on the Palestinian side, and our diplomacy is now over," one Quartet diplomat said. "Put on your helmets."

With Israeli forces poised for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the atmosphere felt charged in the way it did in late March last year, when Israel began its first major offensive into the West Bank after a series of suicide bombings.

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has previously resisted action against Arafat because, he has said, it would risk breaking a promise he made to President Bush not to harm the Palestinian leader.

But Israeli forces are already pervasive in the West Bank, and Israel is already embarked on a campaign to kill the leaders of Hamas. Israel's option for escalating its military offensive appeared to be dwindling, even as domestic Israeli pressure for action was rising after the two bombings on Tuesday.

Under the headline "Enough," The Jerusalem Post editorialized on Thursday: "We must kill as many of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as possible, as quickly as possible, while minimizing collateral damage, but not letting that damage stop us. And we must kill Yasser Arafat, because the world leaves us no alternative.'

Israeli warplanes repeatedly roared over Arafat's compound on Thursday, low enough so that their weapons were visible under their wings, as Palestinian officials met in often stormy sessions with Arafat.

Qureia's proposal for an emergency government came against resistance from top leaders of Arafat's Fatah movement, including Arafat himself, several officials said.

Nasser Yousef, whom Qureia wanted to be his minister of interior, rejected the post on Thursday because Arafat refused to turn over control of all the security forces to him. Mahmoud Abbas resigned earlier this month as prime minister after Arafat insisted on retaining control of most of the forces.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian prime minister, said that a "shouting match" broke out between the two men, and Yousef was clearly angry as he left. Another Palestinian official, who was not present, said that Yousef had accused Arafat of causing the Palestinian revolution to fail.

Shaath said that Qureia had hoped to create "a sense of urgency and seriousness." He said, "We missed an opportunity today."

Anticipating Israeli action in Gaza or against Arafat, Shaath accused Israel of "declaring war" on the Palestinians, and said, "It's going to result in more Palestinians dying, more Israelis dying."

Rather than surrendering control of the security forces, Arafat pushed on Thursday for the creation of a 13-member "security council" with himself at its head to supervise all the forces. Shaath said he hoped that council would begin taking action to demonstrate that Palestinians would restrain violence.