Arafat cultivated image of survivor in final interview

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gave his final interview to a Western newspaper, the first question was supposed to be: “Mr. Arafat, where were you born and where did you grow up?”

“No,” an aide told two reporters from The Washington Times, “not allowed.”

Even birthplaces are political here.

So was the parking lot at Mr. Arafat’s battered compound in Ramallah — maintained to portray an image of brave survival against overwhelming odds.

The pockmarks and the rubble from Israeli attacks had been carefully preserved, down to the last wrecked car.

A bridge linking Mr. Arafat’s main offices and bedroom with much more spacious accommodations on the other side of a narrow lane was part of extensive rebuilding since clashes with Israeli troops in 2002.

But Mr. Arafat steadfastly refused to use any of the new rooms — preferring to sleep in a small, damaged bedroom.

During the exclusive interview with The Times in July, it became evident that it was being granted with strings attached.

Nabil Abu Rdeineh, the media handler for the Palestinian leader, first ruled out the proposed question on Mr. Arafat’s birthplace.

Mr. Arafat for decades contended that he had been born in Jerusalem, but his birth certificate shows that he was born in Cairo — not de rigueur as credentials for a Palestinian revolutionary leader.

“Ask nothing that happened before Oslo,” said Mr. Abu Rdeineh, referring to the peace deal accepted by Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.

Dinner with Mr. Arafat was not on the schedule, but he insisted that reporters for The Times join him at his table.

Over a meal with a small assortment of Cabinet ministers, advisers, a couple of middle-aged women and a couple of security men, Mr. Arafat was charm itself.

He would leap from his chair every now and then, remove a lump of chicken or some other delicacy from his own plate and dump a portion on one of the reporters’ plates.

No photographs were allowed in the dining room — apparently for security reasons. It also doubled as a conference chamber for the Palestinian Cabinet, which would meet with him weekly around the huge, shiny wooden table.

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