- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A preacher compared him to Moses and small boys held his portrait aloft yesterday as Yasser Arafat reveled in the limelight generated by Israel’s decision to deport him.

Mr. Arafat’s besieged compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah became the unlikely setting for the show of defiance one day after Israel’s security Cabinet voted to expel him at some unspecified date in the future.

Israeli leaders shrugged off the spectacle, as well as international condemnation of their decision, saying yesterday the Palestinian leader should have been ousted long ago and the world has no right to judge a nation facing constant suicide bombings.

The threat sparked pro-Arafat marches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and drew opposition from the European Union, the United Nations and Arab countries, as well as the United States.

“In the early hours of this morning, the phones rang from all over the world,” Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom said. “They’re asking us to do nothing against Yasser Arafat. Has the world turned on its head?”

Mr. Arafat emerged from his compound in Ramallah for a second straight night yesterday and rallied hundreds of supporters, saying: “To Jerusalem, we are going as martyrs in the millions.”

The crowd held photos of Mr. Arafat and chanted: “With our blood and souls we will redeem you.” Mr. Arafat answered: “With our blood and souls, we will redeem you, Palestine.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell telephoned both Mr. Shalom and the Palestinian foreign minister to emphasize the United States’ opposition to exiling Mr. Arafat. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said “it would not help matters; it would only serve to give him a broader stage.”

Israel’s government says that as long as the 74-year-old Mr. Arafat continues to wield authority, peacemaking efforts will fail. Still, Israel made no move to oust him from Ramallah, and yesterday it even abandoned lookout positions on top floors of two buildings overlooking his compound.

Israel’s security Cabinet announced its decision in principle Thursday, two days after twin Palestinian suicide bombings killed 15 Israelis.

It also announced it had decided to accelerate construction of a wall dividing Israelis from Palestinians in the West Bank.

Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian foreign minister, said that Mr. Powell had assured him by telephone that “the U.S. acted effectively yesterday to stop any Israeli measure.”

Mr. Shaath spoke inside the rubble-strewn expanse of ruined buildings and piles of earth, dotted with rusting cars crushed by Israeli tanks, where Israel has confined Mr Arafat for most of the last two years.

Yesterday was one of the few occasions when the compound was filled with smiling faces. Scores of Palestinians gathered to fete their leader, waving his portrait and their national flag.

At 12:30 p.m., the call to Friday prayers sounded and Mr. Arafat emerged from his sandbagged office block and walked across a small courtyard to join hundreds of worshippers in a prayer hall. He acknowledged his supporters with smiles and waves.

The preacher who led the prayers did not stint on adulation. With Mr Arafat sitting cross-legged in front of him, he said:

“You will be a steadfast mountain until our people restore their rights and achieve a free Palestine with Jerusalem as our capital.

“Let the conspirators conspire together. God is with you, why should you fear? God is with you just as he was with Moses.”

When the worshippers poured out of the prayer hall, Mr. Arafat was borne along by their enthusiasm. Calling him by his nom de guerre, Abu Ammar, the crowd chanted:

“Our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for Abu Ammar” and “from siege to siege, Abu Ammar is steadfast.”

Mr Arafat, 74, beamed and waved his familiar “V” for victory sign.

Israeli ministers are convinced that Mr Arafat encourages terrorist attacks and makes peace talks impossible.

The experience of Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned as Palestinian prime minister last week, Israeli officials say, proves that Mr. Arafat will undermine anyone willing to crack down on terrorism and deal with Israel.

An opinion poll showed that 60 percent of Israelis would like to see Mr Arafat either killed or exiled.

The survey by the independent Dahaf Institute found only 15 percent wanted to free Mr. Arafat from the Ramallah compound and resume negotiating with him.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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