JERUSALEM -- Israel issued an ominous threat Thursday to "remove" Yasser Arafat because he has failed to halt suicide bombings. Thousands of Palestinians rushed to Arafat's compound to protect their leader, fearing Israel wants to expel or even kill him.
A defiant Arafat, grinning broadly, emerged from his sandbagged West Bank office building shortly after the Israeli security Cabinet's announcement, flashing victory signs to his supporters.
"The leader is Abu Ammar," the crowd chanted, referring to Arafat by his nom de guerre.
Using a bullhorn, the 74-year-old Palestinian leader recited a passage from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, about being steadfast in the face of an oppressor. He then led the crowd in a chant, waving his finger in rhythm: "To Jerusalem, to Jerusalem, to Jerusalem."
The ambiguous Israeli announcement came after a three-hour meeting of the 11-member security Cabinet -- the most exhaustive discussion yet by Israel on Arafat's fate -- and it appeared to be broadly hinting at an upcoming expulsion.
Israel put off immediate action to avoid a confrontation with the United States and give the incoming Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, a last chance to clamp down on militants.
Pressure on Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under increasing pressure at home to take dramatic action that would somehow break the bloody three-year deadlock with the Palestinians and satisfy the public's desire to take revenge for terror attacks, including twin suicide bombings by Hamas that killed 15 Israelis this week.
Opponents of expulsion warned it would trigger more violence, weaken moderate Palestinian leaders and even boost Arafat's influence as he travels to world capitals, giving orders by telephone.
Proponents said Arafat has sabotaged peace efforts and prevented a crackdown against militant groups by the Palestinian Authority.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, echoing recent comments by Secretary of State Colin Powell, reiterated that the Bush administration is opposed to expelling Arafat.
"We think it would not be helpful to expel him because it would just give him another stage to play on," Boucher said. Israeli media said U.S. officials called Sharon to underscore the point.
Aware of the debate over his fate, Arafat said Thursday, before the Cabinet announcement, that he would never leave voluntarily and fully expected to be killed.
"This is my homeland," he told reporters at his Ramallah headquarters, where he has been confined by Israeli sieges and threats for nearly two years. "No one can kick me out." Palestinian protests erupted across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In Gaza City, hundreds of gunmen rushed to the parliament building, some firing in the air. Thousands of marchers carried Arafat posters and flags, chanting: "Sharon, listen well, we will send you to hell." The incoming Palestinian prime minister, Qureia, said expelling Arafat "will eliminate any possibility for peace in the area and will ... also eliminate any possibility for me to form a Palestinian government."
The security Cabinet also weighed other options, including tightening Arafat's isolation by keeping away visitors and cutting phone lines. In previous sieges, Israel briefly cut Arafat off from the outside world, but restored phones, water and electricity under international pressure.
Israeli troops earlier Thursday set up positions on two tall buildings overlooking Arafat's headquarters, and F-16 warplanes repeatedly flew overhead.
Security officials said the army has begun preparing for Arafat's quick ouster. Israeli media reported months ago that under an army contingency plan, Arafat would be flown from Ramallah by helicopter, and that Israeli commandos have scouted locations for a drop-off.
Sharon's office said after the security Cabinet meeting that Israel will press ahead with its war on Palestinian militants "until it is convinced ... that the Palestinian Authority is taking real action toward the dismantling and destruction of the terror organizations." "The events of recent days have proven again that Yasser Arafat is a complete obstacle to any process of reconciliation," the statement said.
"Israel will act to remove this obstacle in the manner, at the time, and in the ways that will be decided on separately." This means Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz could decide at any time to kick out Arafat, without convening the Cabinet again for approval.
The choice of words was intentionally vague, Israeli officials said, not referring explicitly to expulsion but only removal. Israeli media said one possibility would be killing the Palestinian leader, and the Jerusalem Post newspaper openly called for this in an editorial.
The Israeli statement also said Israel will settle for nothing short of a dismantling of armed groups, rejecting an offer by Qureia to negotiate a cease-fire with Israel.
The security Cabinet suggested Arafat could be expelled if Qureia fails to take quick action against the militants. Qureia has given no indication that he would deviate from the policy of his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, who shied away from confrontation with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.
A Palestinian decision Thursday to put all security services under the command of a national security council headed by Arafat also made a crackdown unlikely.