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Even under siege, Arafat still defiant

©Los Angeles Times
April 4, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat spends his days on the telephone, at least when he can get a dial tone. He sleeps little, eats less.

With him inside his battered, besieged headquarters are a motley crew of foreign peace activists, a large contingent of bodyguards, a couple of trusted aides and wanted criminals, and the presidential bagpipe players.

Just outside the door sits the Israeli army.

Two decades after Ariel Sharon helped evict Arafat from Lebanon, the Israeli prime minister has again locked down his nemesis. Wednesday was the sixth day of the siege on the Palestinian Authority president, part of a massive reoccupation of the West Bank by Israeli forces pursuing what they call an antiterrorist campaign.

Initially, Arafat used his newfound imprisonment as a platform. He granted media interviews right and left and mugged for the cameras as a martyr-in-waiting. His suddenly renewed celebrity infuriated Sharon, and Israeli forces were ordered to put a hermetic clamp on Arafat's compound.

Arafat had so deftly played the public relations game that the influential Israeli daily Haaretz wondered whether Sharon would end up exorcising his private ghost or beatifying him.

In the past few days, Arafat hasn't appeared on television, except for one phone interview, and journalists' access is all but cut off. At least physically, Arafat is isolated within a single building at the center of the sprawling compound. Politically, however, his ordeal enhances his stature with many Palestinians and in other parts of the world -- at least in the short term.

Inside the compound, Arafat's associates and supporters have barricaded the windows and take turns keeping guard while settling into a kind of routine of captivity. The atmosphere inside, as described by several people in telephone interviews, seems part-bunker, part-college dorm.

Some people have to sleep in hallways and on the floor. Food, heavy on pita bread and boiled potatoes, is in short supply and has to be rationed. The bagpipers don't even have their instruments. A lot of time is spent keeping up one another's spirits.

Nerves are clearly fraying. Toilets are backing up, and Israeli forces have placed barbed wire around the building.

"It is still very difficult," Arafat's office manager, Zafir Nobani, said by telephone. "We are running out of water, and the phones don't work. We are also low on food. We can't move -- nobody can move."

Nobani said Arafat is well and in high spirits. But he has only a two-day supply of medicine, Nobani said. He wouldn't specify what kind of medicine the 73-year-old Palestinian leader needs.

Photographs show Arafat working at a desk, a gun by his side. His statements reflect a tone that is increasingly defiant and fatalistic. He would rather die for the cause than surrender, he says repeatedly, always adding, "Martyr, martyr, martyr, martyr."

Arafat shuttles between two rooms on the second floor, spending the hours occasionally praying, reading the Koran, receiving phone calls and calling out whenever he gets a line. His wife, Suha, and their daughter, Zahwa, are in Paris.

Nobani said Arafat communicates with regional Palestinian governors to keep abreast of the latest Israeli military actions, and with European officials to prod world reaction.

He has a mobile phone, but Nobani and others inside the compound are convinced that the Israelis are blocking cellular phone signals.

Israeli government officials said that Arafat's entourage, which reportedly numbers around 300, exaggerates the hardships for political gain. The army released a list detailing supplies it says it shipped to Arafat on Tuesday, including 600 pieces of bread, 13 cans of hummus, 66 packages of yellow cheese, 55 cans of sardines and 145 pounds of coffee.

The Israelis say that when Arafat gave a television interview by candlelight the other day, he had electricity but chose candles for effect. While people inside the compound didn't comment on that specific incident, they did say that electricity comes and goes.

The odd addition to the compound's inhabitants is, of course, the foreign delegation. Thirty-four peace and antiglobalization activists from half a dozen countries remain inside the building. They are part of a larger group that, to the shock of many, marched right past the tanks and infantry Sunday and made themselves at home at Arafat's side. They brought a CNN crew with them, and pictures of the visit ricocheted across the world.

The activists said their idea was to serve as human shields to protect Arafat, whom many thought Sharon intended to kill.

"The first few days, it was a kind of psychological warfare," Israeli-Canadian peace activist Neta Golan said. "They (the Israeli army) were throwing sound bombs and moving the tanks back and forth. It made sure everyone was on their toes. Now they've stopped all that, so we are even more on our toes."

Arafat makes regular appearances to the foreign volunteers, sometimes sitting with them for breakfast, or at least for a chat.

"He looks strong, determined, and it's clear that he is determined to leave here free or resist," Golan said.

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and the Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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