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Arafat publicly defiant but privately worried

Sunday, April 25, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Addressing thousands of cheering supporters Saturday, Yasser Arafat dismissed the latest Israeli threats against him, referring to himself as a "mountain" that will not be moved.

But confidants of the Palestinian leader said he was taking the warnings seriously and was preparing for the possibility of his death.

Arafat delivered his public comments after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he was no longer bound by a promise to Washington not to harm the Palestinian leader. Sharon's remarks Friday were seen as his strongest threat against Arafat yet.

Sharon's remarks were criticized by Russia, Germany and the United States, which all urged him to leave Arafat alone. Angry Palestinian officials accused the United States of encouraging the Israeli leader's tough line.

Sharon spoke ahead of a May 2 vote by 200,000 members of his ruling Likud Party on his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. His tough words may have been an attempt to boost support among the most hawkish party members.

Pledge to stand strong

Opponents of the withdrawal plan, which also includes a limited pullback from the West Bank, have accused Sharon of caving in to terrorism.

Polls have indicated a small margin of support among Likud members for Sharon's plan, and a defeat would be a serious blow to the prime minister.

On Saturday, an estimated 3,000 people gathered outside Arafat's West Bank headquarters in Ramallah. Smiling at times and raising his arms, Arafat pledged to stand strong in the face of the latest threats.

"I tell Sharon and his gang, 'The mountain cannot be moved by the wind,"' he said, using a phrase to show he will not give in to threats.

Behind the scenes, however, Arafat confidants said he was concerned about the latest threat.

"I met with Arafat this morning. He told me, 'I am a believer. My fate is martyrdom,"' said Abbas Zaki, a leading member of Arafat's Fatah movement.

Sharon accuses Arafat of supporting Palestinian militants, who have killed more than 900 Israelis during 3 1/2 years of fighting. Israel has killed dozens of militants, including the leaders of the Islamic group Hamas, in targeted attacks.

But under U.S. pressure, it has refrained from killing or expelling Arafat. In recent months, however, Israel repeatedly has threatened Arafat. Sharon took the threats to a new level Friday, saying that he told President Bush earlier this month Israel was no longer bound by the pledge not to harm Arafat.

Israel's Channel One television reported Saturday that Sharon had asked his security chiefs for assessments on attacking Arafat.

After Friday's broadcast, the White House said Bush "made it entirely clear" he opposes an attack on Arafat.

But Palestinian officials said Bush's close ties with Sharon had encouraged the Israeli leader's latest comments.

Bush recently endorsed the Gaza withdrawal plan and gave tacit recognition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians, and much of the international community, consider the settlements illegal.

"The flagrant bias of the United States toward Israel ... is a direct cause of Sharon's insolent statements regarding the threats against President Yasser Arafat's life," said a statement issued by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's office.

Palestinian officials said on condition of anonymity they were especially concerned by Israel's recent assassinations of two Hamas leaders. The killings marked a dramatic escalation in Israel's campaign against the militant group.

In the Nusseirat refugee camp in Gaza, hundreds of Arafat supporters, mostly gunmen, demonstrated Saturday.

Later, hundreds more, including dozens of armed militants, held a second rally in Gaza City.

"With our blood and souls we will redeem you!" the marchers chanted.

Meanwhile, violence continued in the West Bank.

The Israeli army said it killed three men in the town of Jenin who were preparing to carry out a suicide bombing. It said the men fired at soldiers who were trying to arrest them.

Palestinian residents said the men belonged to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group linked to Arafat's Fatah faction.

In the nearby village of Shuwadeh, troops shot two men traveling in a car, killing one and seriously wounding the second, medical workers said. Palestinian security sources said the men supported Arafat's Fatah group but were not affiliated with the military wing.

Israeli security sources said the men were preparing a suicide bombing.


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