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Monday, 25 February, 2002, 15:09 GMT
Arafat survives Israeli incarceration
The Surda checkpoint which leads into the West Bank town of Ramallah
Yasser Arafat in jubilant mood last week
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By BBC News Online's Tarik Kafala

Yasser Arafat remains under siege in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

He has been allowed by Israel to move about the city, but will need permission if he wants to leave the city limits.

Physically, his position is still precarious and his ability to wield power in the Palestinian territories as a whole is greatly diminished.

There is no doubt that his incarceration has increased Arafat's popularity... when he is under attack from the Israelis people have a greater and greater sympathy for him

Saleh Jawwad, Palestinian university professor
But far from sidelining or marginalising Mr Arafat, his imprisonment in his Ramallah headquarters since December may have actually enhanced his position.

Palestinians seem to have rallied round their leader and there is no talk any more of a Palestinian civil war or of infighting.

"There is no doubt that his incarceration has increased his popularity," Saleh Jawwad, a Professor of Political Science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, told BBC News Online from his home in Ramallah.

"There's a very direct link here - when he is under attack from the Israelis, people have a greater and greater sympathy for him."

And Mr Arafat has once again adopted the role he is most comfortable with - the resistance fighter leading a movement for national self-determination.

Who is under siege?

Events have also played into Mr Arafat's hands.

The increasing disenchantment of Israelis with their Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has made it look as if he, not Mr Arafat, is under siege.

Mr Sharon's promise to bring Israelis security by being tough on the Palestinians has clearly failed.

The Surda checkpoint which leads into the West Bank town of Ramallah
Sharon's speech to the nation last week was widely criticised in Israel for having no new ideas
The prime minister is also struggling with his coalition. Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, also the leader of the Labour party, is calling for Mr Arafat to be allowed out of Ramallah.

Representatives of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party have threatened to leave the government if Mr Arafat is allowed to leave Ramallah.

International criticism of the heavy Israeli military response to Palestinian violence, and Mr Arafat's incarceration, have eased the international pressure on the Palestinian leader to act against militant groups.

The moral high ground

The fact that Palestinian militant groups appear to have suspended their suicide attacks in favour of highly effective attacks on the Israeli army and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza has allowed Mr Arafat to assume the moral high ground.

The Surda checkpoint which leads into the West Bank town of Ramallah
Many Palestinians have welcomed the move away from suicide attacks
When Palestinian groups carried out suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, Palestinian violence was criticised as terrorism.

Now that the attacks are focused on Israeli military targets and settlers on occupied territory, Palestinians can argue the attacks are legitimate resistance.

Whether Mr Arafat is in any way responsible for this apparent shift in strategy is not clear - but he has certainly benefited from the reflected glory of successful attacks on the Israeli army carried out by groups with close links to his Fatah movement.

"There was a lot of Palestinian criticism of the suicide attacks - they brought more harm to us than good," Saleh Jawwad said.

But he says it is not clear that support for this strategy will last indefinitely.

"The new strategy may not work in our favour. Israel's response to the attacks on the army is even more severe that the suicide attacks.

"We recently had the heaviest shelling of Ramallah in the whole of the intifada so far. And my impression is that the blockage around Ramallah has been tightened even further," Mr Jawwad said.

Sharon's contradictions

As the current situation stands, Ariel Sharon has put himself in the position, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper argued, of being "warden for a prisoner on probation".

It may be that the Israeli prime minister is going to decide on a case by case basis whether to let Mr Arafat leave Ramallah.

Mr Sharon appears to have entangled himself in a contradictory position.

On the one hand he is unable to get rid of Mr Arafat, marginalise him or cultivate an alternative Palestinian leadership.

And reports say that Washington has expressly forbidden Mr Sharon from killing the Palestinian leader.

On the other hand, having declared Mr Arafat irrelevant and a supporter of terrorism, Mr Sharon has no partner for talks, should he want one.

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