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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 13:43 GMT
Arafat and the Beirut factor
Yasser Arafat in Beirut in 1982
Israeli bombs rained down on Beirut in the 1980s
By BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is becoming increasingly personalised, with both sides' veteran leaders facing each other down as they have so many times through the years.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, now says he is sorry that Israel did not "liquidate" the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, 20 years ago when it invaded Beirut.

He recalled how Israeli forces had agreed not to kill Mr Arafat, who was then based in Beirut.

Mr Sharon is not the only one who has recently been recalling the chaotic days of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Yasser Arafat in Beirut
Yasser Arafat's Beirut days have become a major part of his personal mythology
Mr Arafat - holed up in Ramallah, besieged by Israeli troops - has also been drawing parallels.

Last month, he said Mr Sharon had had him marked ever since, adding that this showed how little Mr Sharon had learnt from history.

Mr Arafat said Mr Sharon's efforts to destroy him back then had in the end only succeeded in the establishment of an embryonic Palestinian state a decade or so down the line.

'Heroic resistance'

The Israeli siege of Beirut has become a major part of Mr Arafat's personal mythology.

According to his reading of the events, it was not a humiliating defeat for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was finally forced to leave Lebanon and reconstitute itself in Tunis, but a heroic moment of resistance.

Ariel Sharon in Beirut
Mr Sharon says Israeli forces agreed not to kill Mr Arafat
Whatever his other failings, Mr Arafat has always shown courage under fire.

And as Israeli bombs rained down hour after hour on the Palestinians in Beirut, he refused to surrender.

His stand may have been at the expense of the Lebanese, thousands of whom were killed during the Israeli invasion. But his defiance meant his leadership of the Palestinian people - whatever the human cost - remained supreme.

Israel denies that it was trying to kill Mr Arafat himself, but its bombs often seemed to be directed at exactly where he was.

When Mr Arafat did at last bow to the inevitable and agree to leave Beirut, he was able to portray it as a victory rather than a defeat.

At another critical moment in his extraordinary career, Mr Arafat is trying to perform the same feat.

But although he has proved himself a remarkable political survivor, many people are beginning to wonder whether this time Mr Arafat still has the physical and emotional reserves left to prevail.

See also:

31 Jan 02 | Middle East
Sharon regrets sparing Arafat
20 Jan 02 | Middle East
Thousands demand Arafat's release
12 Dec 01 | Middle East
Arafat says Sharon has him marked
26 Jan 02 | Middle East
Arafat urges end to attacks
28 Jan 02 | Middle East
Analysis: Arafat's split support
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