RAMALLAH, West Bank - The second-ranking official in the Israeli government said Sunday that killing Yasser Arafat is an option, as thousands of Palestinians took to the streets across the West Bank and Gaza Strip promising to protect their leader.
Israel blames Arafat for blocking peace efforts and preventing a crackdown against terrorists who have carried out two suicide bombings in the last week.
Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that killing Arafat is a possibility, along with expelling him or keeping him in a siege that would "isolate him from the world." Olmert's comments have not been part of any official government statement.
Olmert's comments appeared aimed at sending signals to other Palestinian leaders to abandon Arafat. Olmert, considered a likely future candidate for premier, is the closest official to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to say outright that Arafat might be killed.
"Arafat can no longer be a factor in what happens here," Olmert told Israel Radio. "Expulsion is certainly one of the options; killing is also one of the options."
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Israel would incite rage among Arabs and Muslims everywhere by exiling or killing Arafat.
"The Israelis know our position quite well," 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."
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 Arafat and then-Premier 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 Sharon has decided not to build, for now, a section of 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.
The plan to erect a security barrier between Israel and the West Bank is popular in Israel as a way to block terrorist bombers. No Palestinian bombers have come from the Gaza Strip, which is fenced.
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, meanwhile, condemned Olmert's statements as "the behavior and actions of a mafia and not a government."
Olmert's statements echoed threats by other Israeli officials after last week's vaguely worded security Cabinet decision to "remove" Arafat. The decision came after twin suicide bombings killed 15 people.
Israeli leaders have said a move to further isolate 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 Arafat have triggered daily protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in support of Arafat.
On Sunday, thousands of supporters arrived for a fourth straight day at Arafat's compound, chanting that their 74-year-old leader "is a mountain that the wind can't shake."
Arafat emerged and waved, smiling.
Some 5,000 Palestinians in the Rashidiyeh refugee camp in southern Lebanon also demonstrated to support Arafat. Speaking by telephone over a loudspeaker, Arafat told them: "I will die in Palestine and I will not leave."
The Palestinians have asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene to protect Arafat.