- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The second-ranking official in the Israeli government said yesterday that killing Yasser Arafat is an option, sending thousands of Palestinians into the streets across the West Bank and Gaza Strip promising to protect their leader.

Israel blames Mr. Arafat for blocking peace efforts and preventing a crackdown against militants who have carried out two suicide bombings in the last week.

Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said yesterday that killing Mr. Arafat is a possibility — along with expelling him or keeping him in a siege that would “isolate him from the world.” Mr. Olmert’s comments have not been part of any official government statement.

The remark appeared aimed at sending signals to other Palestinian leaders to abandon Mr. Arafat. Mr. Olmert, considered a likely future candidate for prime minister, is the closest official to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to say outright that Mr. Arafat might be killed.

“Arafat can no longer be a factor in what happens here,” Mr. Olmert told Israel Radio. “Expulsion is certainly one of the options, killing is also one of the options.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Israel would incite rage among Arabs and Muslims everywhere by exiling or killing Mr. Arafat.

“The Israelis know our position quite well,” Mr. Powell told “Fox News Sunday” during a visit to Iraq. “The United States does not support either the elimination of him or the exile of Mr. Arafat.”

Mr. Olmert’s comments underscored the collapse of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan and the depths to which Israeli-Palestinian relations have sunk a decade after Mr. Arafat and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed on the first Israel-PLO accords in September 1993.

In a sign that Israelis were bending on other U.S. demands, Israeli security officials said Mr. Sharon has decided not to build, for now, a section of the security barrier that would have dipped deep into the West Bank to incorporate Jewish settlements in the center of territory that Palestinians want for a state.

The previously intended route of the barrier enraged Palestinians, who saw it as a land grab, and was strongly opposed by the United States.

Israel has completed about 90 miles of the West Bank barrier, whose fences, trenches, razor wire and concrete walls could eventually run more than 400 miles, depending on the ultimate route.

Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat condemned Mr. Olmert’s statement as “the behavior and actions of a mafia and not a government.”

The remark echoed threats by other Israeli officials following last week’s vaguely worded security Cabinet decision to “remove” Mr. Arafat. The decision came after twin suicide bombings killed 15 persons.

Israeli leaders have said a move to further isolate Mr. Arafat could include cutting phone lines and barring visitors to his Ramallah compound, where he has been effectively confined for nearly two years.

The threats against Mr. Arafat have triggered daily protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thousands of supporters arrived yesterday at his compound, chanting that their 74-year-old leader “is a mountain that the wind can’t shake.”

Mr. Arafat emerged and waved, smiling.

Some 5,000 Palestinians in the Rashidiyeh refugee camp in southern Lebanon also demonstrated to support Mr. Arafat. Speaking by telephone over a loudspeaker, Mr. Arafat told them: “I will die in Palestine, and I will not leave.”

In an unusual gesture, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa offered support to Mr. Arafat by telephone yesterday, officials said. It was disputed who had placed the call.

The Palestinians have asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene to protect Mr. Arafat, who on Saturday urged Israel to return to the negotiating table to end three years of violence that has killed more than 800 Israelis and some 2,500 Palestinians. But he also told supporters recently, “To Jerusalem we are going as martyrs in the millions.”

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