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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 November, 2003, 11:41 GMT
Arafat: Obstacle or the key to peace?
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
By Jeremy Bowen
The BBC's special correspondent

Yasser Arafat
By isolating Arafat Israel has boosted his popularity with Palestinians
Once a regular guest at The White House, Yasser Arafat is now politically isolated by Israel and America who insist he has the power to stop suicide bombings against Israelis.

But could a peace deal be made without the man who has led the Palestinians for decades?

Zakariya Zubaydi pulled a picture out of his wallet. It was a grainy black and white snapshot, cut from a newspaper.

Zubaydi is the leader of the Palestinian armed group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank town of Jenin.

The photo was of his hero, Yasser Arafat. It was taken in the late 1960s, when Arafat was not much older than Mr Zubaydi is now. It showed him out of doors, squatting on the ground and carrying a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.

Mr Zubaydi, who is in his late 20s, was wearing a pistol in a holster on the belt of his jeans.

With him were two younger men, barely out of their teens. They were carrying American-made M-16 rifles with telescopic sights.

The rifles' markings showed that they had come from the Israeli army. They said that the guns had been captured.

Photograph of Yasser Arafat as a young man
Zubaydi's photograph of a young Yasser Arafat
Zubaydi put away his picture of Arafat with a smile. Arafat, he said, was an honest man. He was sharing the pain of the Palestinian people. The Israelis were persecuting him because he would not give in to them.

For the best part of two years, Israel has confined Yasser Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah on the West Bank.

Deportation threat

It has refused to deal with him, arguing that he is a terrorist killer, the inspiration and controlling force behind the suicide bombers.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has stated its intention of deporting him to an unspecified location, although pressure from the United States has stopped them carrying out their threat.

Members of Mr Sharon's cabinet have mused publicly about killing Arafat.

Israel has the whole-hearted support of President Bush for its policy of regime change. They have succeeded in imposing a certain amount of international isolation on Yasser Arafat.

Not all that long ago, when Bill Clinton was in the White House, Arafat was a regular visitor. Now he cannot leave the ruins of his compound in Ramallah.

Palestinians have rallied round Arafat since his confinement
Palestinian protesters holding placards bearing Arafat's image
But Israel's actions have demonstrated, once again, that Arafat is the unchallenged leader of the Palestinian people.

When the peace process with Israel was floundering in the late 1990s he was less popular with his own people than he is today. They thought he was being forced into unsustainable concessions and getting precious little in return.

After Rabin

Now they identify with him. Israel, they say, is doing to Arafat exactly what it does to them.

This week marks the eighth anniversary of the assassination of the Israeli prime minister and war hero Yitzhak Rabin.

I clicked on the BBC News Online link to a report I filed from Jerusalem on the evening of 4 November, 1995, when Rabin was shot by Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist.

The report included a clip of a desperately concerned looking Yasser Arafat, condemning what he called an awful and terrible crime and hoping that the peacemakers would be able to overcome the loss of Rabin, a "brave leader".

In the atmosphere of shock that followed the assassination, he was allowed to visit Rabin's widow, Leah, at their flat in Tel Aviv. He was even photographed with her bare-headed, without his famous black and white checked keffiyah.

It was the closest he ever came to acceptance in Israel. As the peace process crumbled without Rabin, the old Israeli view that Arafat was an unreconstructed terrorist, which many of them had anyway never lost, once again reasserted itself.

Yasser Arafat may well, as they say, be part of the problem. But the response of Palestinians to his confinement shows that he is part of the solution as well, just as he always has been.

If Israel wants to engage in a political process with the Palestinians, it will only happen with his consent.

Correspondent: Arafat Investigated was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two at 19.15 GMT on Sunday, 9 November, 2003.

Immediately after the programme, Jeremy answered your questions in a live forum.

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Profile: Yasser Arafat
12 Sep 03  |  Middle East
Arafat Investigated
30 Oct 03  |  Correspondent
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03 Nov 03  |  Correspondent
Have your say
06 Nov 03  |  Correspondent


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