Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Arafat accuses Israel of it own aparthied plan

The Palestinian leader says the Israeli government is not serious about peace and condemns its plan for a West Bank fence

By Conal Urquhart  /  THE GUARDIAN , RAMALLAH

He sits like a schoolteacher, peering through thick glasses at documents on a lectern, occasionally marking them with a red pen before passing them to an aide.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat looks old and frail in his office in the Muqata in Ramallah, one of the few remaining buildings of the Palestinian government compound.

He reels off dates and events as he demonstrates why he believes the Israeli government, in spite of its claims, is not serious about peace, and he begs for international monitors to prevent the region falling back into futile violence.

"They are not complying with the agreement," he says. "Still they are escalating their military aggression against our people ... the siege around cities and towns in the West Bank and Gaza and the building of the wall around Jerusalem."

Sitting with his gun within reach, Arafat expounds on the dubious character of the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but he only loses his cool momentarily on the subject of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

No grandeur

The office of the chairman, or president, of the Palestinian Authority itself is not much bigger than that of the average headteacher. The other buildings in the compound were destroyed by the Israeli army during two sieges last year. The compound is full of rubble and wrecked cars bulldozed into makeshift barriers.

To get to the seat of Arafat's power, you pass through a sandbagged entrance and walk through a narrow corridor, up a stairwell past dozens of Palestinian soldiers.

Next to the waiting room are two small bedrooms, each with two beds. They look like bodyguards' or servants' rooms, but one of them has been Arafat's bedroom for more than a year.

On his desk, some 10m from his bedroom, Arafat has notepaper, a plate of biscuits, and an ornamental bird made of glass from Hebron. Lying on the floor behind his chair is the only hint of his revolutionary past -- a machine pistol wrapped in its holster and a belt. It is difficult to imagine him aiming it effectively now.

He raises a map of the West Bank which shows the projected route of the Israeli security fence, cutting Palestinian areas into separate zones.

"I have visited all Africa and the cantons in Africa," he says, likening the Israeli plans to apartheid South Africa's bantustans.

"We have to compare it with what we are facing here. We are in prisons; not me personally, but all our people everywhere. Fifty-eight percent of the West Bank will be confiscated. How can this be accepted by the international community?" he said.

Arafat speaks clearly in English, looking directly at his questioner. However, questions are generally ignored, and he continues with what he wants to say. He often returns to subjects he had finished with as he thinks of some new example of Israeli perfidy and injustice, prefacing each point with either, "For your information ..." or "Not to forget ..."

He is particularly annoyed by the lack of support for Palestinians from the international community and the lack of pressure on the Israelis.

He recalls the international outcry against the Taliban when it blew up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, and then produces a picture of a statue of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem which was damaged by Israeli fire last year.

"This is a holy statue for the Christians and the Muslims. Saint Mary is the only woman in our Koran. Look: 13 shots, and not one voice is heard. Who can accept this?" he said.

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