RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yasser Arafat often describes his struggle as a “long march” to Jerusalem, capital of his Palestinian state-to-be. “And I hope that the next time you see me,” he said, “will be in my mothers house.”
It was next to the Wailing Wall, he explained, and it was only partly destroyed when the Israelis demolished the ancient Mograbi quarter after seizing East Jerusalem in 1967.
Here in Ramallah, he is as physically close to his goal as he can get, a mere 10 minutes by car. But whether, politically, this really is his last way station on the road to Jerusalem depends on the outcome of the intifada, or uprising.
At the moment, like all the towns inhabitants, he is under siege. He received me in the Muqataa — district headquarters — from which British, Jordanians and then Israelis formerly administered the town.
The night before, it had come under fire — just another of those now almost banal intrusions of warfare into lives that otherwise have many outward aspects of normality. Ramallah is ringed by Israeli settlements. The exchanges between them and the Palestinian Shabiba, or “youth,” have taken on a routine pattern: Sometimes it is the Shabiba who start them, with the ineffectual Kalashnikovs, which are the only weapons they possess; sometimes it is the settlers or Israeli army, with much heavier weapons, including tanks.
On this occasion, residents said, it was the latter. From the settlement of Psagot, they shot and wounded a 12-year-old boy playing in the Hashimiyah School yard, about 300 yards away.
The Muqataa, said an Arafat aide, was hit several times by a “500” — shorthand here for a kind of machine gun used by the Israelis. “No,” contradicted his chief, with all the authority of lifelong familiarity with the acoustics of warfare, “it was an 800.” Intensifying the sense of siege, for Mr. Arafat, are the hazards and difficulty of movement.
His private helicopter has been grounded. It was former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, not Ariel Sharon, who deprived him of it, Mr. Arafat explained, when “he pushed his forces into our towns and cities on Sept. 28” — the day Gen. Sharon with a heavy police guard toured the Muslim sites on the Temple Mount, provoking the “al-Aqsa Intifada” that has continued since then.
Now Mr. Arafat has to rely on a Jordanian helicopter. And simply to get to Gaza, the other segment of his domain now almost entirely cut off from the West Bank, he has to go first to Amman, Jordans capital, take a flight to al-Arish, Egypt, and then go by road through dangerous, settler-filled territory to his Gaza headquarters.
I first met “the president,” as he now styles himself, somewhere in Jordans Ghor Valley in 1968, shortly after his guerrilla movement had emerged, in an aura of heroism and great expectations, from the underground existence that both Israel and hostile Arab governments had imposed on it.
At the time, as the mere spokesman of the collectively led Fatah organization, Mr. Arafats rhetoric was fiery and his objectives uncompromising: the “complete liberation of Palestine,” and “by armed struggle,” alone. It was apparently owing to this long association that he agreed to be interviewed.
Nonetheless, it came as a surprise to me, and evidently to some of his aides — all the more since, as a result of my last visit to the occupied territories (Gaza, 1997, when I had written about corruption in the Palestine Authority), he had instructed his representative in London to sue me in the British courts.
But Mr. Arafat was ever a man of reconciliations. After all, he is about to consummate a far more spectacular one, to go to Damascus to see Bashar Assad — son of the ruler he used to describe, in some of his darkest hours, as the co-conspirator of Israel against the Palestinian cause.
He began this interview with a paradoxical assertion: “I am not giving interviews.” This was to be “just a chat.” Furthermore, I observed, he hardly ever addresses his people. This seemed rather curious for a leader engaged in what many of his people clearly think is the climax of a long struggle.
“Yes,” he conceded, “I speak little.” Turning to his Cabinet secretary, Ahmad Abdul Rahman, he said: “I leave it to my mass-media experts. They are better at it than me.” These things were said humorously.
The Palestinian leader is in a relaxed and boyant mood. Some of his entourage say he is confident that he is at least holding his own in the great trial of strength and stamina now under way.
Mr. Arafat must also know that, though still heavily criticized for the manifold flaws of his administration, he has regained much popularity — both here and in the Arab world at large — simply for standing firm as the leader of a patriotic struggle. He is also, he says, in very good health.
Even as long ago as his last two great sieges — the Israeli one of Beirut in 1982 and the Syrian one of Tripoli in 1983 — he was known to his followers as the Khityar, “the old man.”
Now, at 72, the Khityar shows his age. But there is no sign of mental decay, and even the celebrated trembling lips — not the symptom, apparently, of any serious condition — tremble less now than they used to.
His taciturnity is widely interpreted as a deliberate strategy. Mr. Arafat just doesnt want to elaborate on the nature of the intifada. Is it violent — which is banned under the Oslo accords — or nonviolent? Armed struggle or peaceful mass action? Spontaneous, or subject to his control and manipulation? Confined to the occupied territories or deliberately exported to Israeli proper?
Clearly, the conflict with Israel contains all these elements. But you will be hard-pressed to get him to explain his part in them. It is not his business, he repeatedly insists, but Israels. For it was Gen. Sharon who started it all.
Mr. Arafat had been so alarmed at the hard-line Israeli leaders plan to visit the al-Aqsa mosque compound, he said, that he and several aides visited Mr. Barak at his home the night before to warn him of the likely consequences.
“Unfortunately, he did not follow my advice. You know what happened the next day: They opened fire on those who were praying. That is what made the intifada and the resistance of our people.”
Asked if the intifada will go on, he replied, “Before asking me, you must ask the Israelis whether they will go on with their military escalation.”
To the accusation that he is going back to “armed struggle,” Mr. Arafat gave an ironic response.
“It seems,” he said, “that it is I who send helicopters, tanks, and armored cars to seal all Israeli cities … Is it I who use uranium, and gas bombs? I who close the passages to Jordan and Gaza? We have funerals every day. Who can control a people who have funerals every day?”
“Until now,” he insisted, “I have not given any order to open fire. And they know that. Our policemen and soldiers have not been involved till now.”
So the intifada is individual, spontaneous acts?
“Mainly. And self-defense against the settlers.”
Mr. Arafat said the present struggle reminds him, despite its much smaller scale and intensity, of the fighting during the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut — except that in Beirut, “we didnt have these settlers, who commit their crimes under the control and protection of the Israeli army, attacking our towns and villages and uprooting trees, including even olive trees that go back to Roman times.”
So if the Israelis stopped “causing funerals every day,” you could tell your people to stop?
“Definitely,” said Mr. Arafat. “But they also have to follow up on the agreement” — that is to say, return to the peace process where it left off, not at last Julys Camp David summit, but at the Taba talks held on the eve of the Israeli elections. At those, Mr. Arafat said, the two sides had come closer than ever to an agreement.
The Palestinian leader denied the Israeli contention that it was he who caused the peace process to collapse by rejecting “the most generous offer” Israel ever made — an offer measured, in its strictly territorial dimension, as about 96 percent of the occupied territories.
If there was a generous offer, he said, it was not that of the Israelis but that of the Palestinians, with their renunciation of 78 percent of their original homeland. But “some of their leaders refuse to understand just what the Palestinians offered — for history and the whole regions history.”
Nonetheless, at Taba, the Israelis had offered far more than ever before — far more than at Camp David, Mr. Arafat said.
“For first time, they agreed to give up 80 percent of the (Jewish) settlements. For those along the frontier that would not be removed, there would be a land swap,” he added.
Could Mr. Arafat now make any headway with a man like Gen. Sharon, whose officially stated idea of territorial compromise is that the Palestinians should be content with 42 percent of their present 22 percent, who refuses to shake hands with “a liar and a murderer,” as Gen. Sharon calls Mr. Arafat, and who, according to Mr. Arafat, tried to assassinate the Palestinian leader 13 times during the siege of Beirut alone?
His aides think not, but Mr. Arafat is conciliatory discretion itself: “I respect anyone the Israelis elect, (Yitzhak) Rabin, (Shimon) Peres, (Binyamin) Netanyahu, Barak and now Sharon.”
Besides, added Mr. Arafat: “I dont think he will try to kill me. He is now the first man in Israel — and I have a hot line to him.”
A hot line? “Yes,” Mr. Arafat replied, “Omri is my hot line,” he explained, referring to Gen. Sharons son, who is becoming a regular visitor to the Muqataa.
It would seem from such methods of communication that Mr. Arafat is “Arabizing” the Israelis.
“But they are Arabs,” Mr. Arafat shot back, estimating that 70 percent of the current generation in Israel are of Middle East origin.
Mr. Arafat and his aides believe that Gen. Sharon is beginning to falter. That is the interpretation they put on a recent, inglorious operation in Gaza.
The Israeli army had to beat a swift retreat from its punitive foray into Area A — that portion of the occupied territories, still very small, over which the Palestine Authority has exclusive control, as distinct from Area B, where it has joint control, and Area C, where Israel remains in sole charge.
The “very important” thing here, Mr. Arafat said, is that President Bush and the Europeans told Gen. Sharon to stop.
Does Mr. Arafat believe that international intervention is indispensable?
“This is what happened all over the world — in Bosnia, in Kosovo,” the Palestinian leader replied.
Some Israelis believe he will do anything, even engineer another massacre, another “Sabra and Shatila,” to bring that about.
The two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut were surrounded by Israeli troops under Gen. Sharons control in 1982, when he let an Israeli-allied Christian militia enter and conduct a bloody 36-hour rampage.
“It has been done already,” the Palestinian leader replied: “25,000 people wounded (since Sept. 28).
And what about all that destruction to houses, installations, schools, mosques and churches? Even the synagogue of the Samaritans in Nablus has been bombed.”
Is it not possible, if things get worse, that instead of completing his “long march” to Jerusalem, Mr. Arafat might be captured and put on a plane to Tunis, his former headquarters in exile, as some Israelis are urging?
“I will return,” Mr. Arafat replied. “I have my ways, you know. I always used to come here secretly. This is my land. Here I shall die.”