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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 10:56 GMT
Arafat: Down but not out
Yasser Arafat
Aged 72, Mr Arafat still has plenty of fight left in him
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, recently dismissed as "irrelevant" by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is currently under virtual house arrest in his compound in Ramallah. But as the BBC's Lyse Doucet found out, he is still far from ready to cave in.

If Yasser Arafat was granted one wish, it would certainly be a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Once he had a touch of Jerusalem in his life. The glorious turquoise blue of its sky was exactly the colour of his Volkswagen beetle.

Lyse Doucet
Lyse Doucet obtained a rare interview inside Mr Arafat's compound
When he told me about his car, he cast his eyes around the dining room searching for the right shade, and there it was - in the panorama running along the wall, a shimmering Jerusalem sky cradling the golden Dome of the Rock.

His advisers around the table nodded in agreement - it was exactly that colour.

It is hard to imagine the symbol of the Palestinian struggle inside that small gumdrop of a car, but maybe he didn't drive it that much. He had seven cars then, including a Thunderbird.

Picture of health

That was when he lived in Kuwait, a young and, it seems, successful engineer. But now Yasser Arafat is 72, under Israeli siege and on a low fat diet.

And - it has to be said - he hasn't looked so well in years. There's a bounce in his walk and his trembling lip, said to be a sign of Parkinson's disease, is under control.

I took a long sideways look as I sat to his left, straining to see what tiny pins he wore on his lapel.

I could make out a Palestinian and an American flag, the stars of the European Commission, and there was a ridge across his chest underneath his trademark fatigues.

Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah
Yasser Arafat is a virtual prisoner
Was he wearing body armour? Would it be rude to ask? What should you ask when you have dinner with the Palestinian leader? Conversation is a risky business.

I inspected the spread of salads, olives and cheese arranged along the table.

Yasser Arafat made his way through his low fat choices - vegetable soup followed by round slices of egg without the yolk, neatly chopped fruit, and tidy squares of sesame bread which he dipped in a black circle of poppy seed oil blended with honey.

Every so often, he held out morsels for me to taste.

Facts at his fingertips

I asked him about the olive trees. Like Yasser Arafat they are a symbol of Palestinian resistance. He mourned how 50% of these groves have been uprooted by the Israelis in the name of security.

One of his aides piped up: "We call them Roman trees, they have been on the land so long - 300 years."

Yasser Arafat glared at him. "Not 300 years," he snarled, "2,000 years". I felt for the man who momentarily crumbled under his leader's piercing stare.

But what about Jerusalem, I insisted as calmly as I could. 'You will visit me there,' he cried, 'in my capital'.

Yasser Arafat, I realised that night, is a leader who does keep facts and figures in his head - and he's not one to suffer fools gladly.

But he does like to talk about suffering - not his, but the suffering of his people.

When we retired to his office next door, I explained I would have to sit on his side of the desk to achieve the best radio recording.

Past memories

As the clock ticked past midnight, his command of English and his emotions gathered strength.

"What about Ariel Sharon's plans to isolate him and develop new leaders?" I asked.

He burst out laughing with his wide Cheshire cat grin. "If Mr Sharon thinks he will drive Yasser Arafat out, does he really have the measure of the man? He thrives under pressure."

The Palestinian leader reminisced about his days in Beirut in the 1980s - for 88 days surrounded by Israeli tanks, warships and planes.

And he recalled his days on the run, when he slipped in and out of Palestinian towns.

Demonstrators have gathered to protest outside the compound
But that was Yasser Arafat of old. Now he is also the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, under pressure from Israel and the world to stop the violence.

"Would he arrest the 33 people on the list of the US Secretary of State Colin Powell?" I asked. "Ask my security forces," he fired back.

I asked him if he feared civil war, and he demanded to know if this was an interrogation.

Fighting talk

The temperature shot up a few degrees with every question. I could see his aides staring at me - one stood bolt upright - and then it seems I pushed the red button.

I asked about Raed Karni, who was said to be in prison but it turned out he wasn't.

Yasser Arafat exploded. "This is not fair," he shouted. "Why have you come here with such bad questions?"

I protested that this was the question asked by every Western envoy. He leaned so close I was only conscious of the iris of his eye, a milky grey-brown marble bulging from his face.

His finger stabbed the little pocket of air between him and my cheek. "Finished." he declared.

But what about Jerusalem, I insisted as calmly as I could. "You will visit me there," he cried, "in my capital".

Tanks outside Yasser Arafat's compound
Tanks patrol the surrounding area on a regular basis
Anger boiled over, partly I think because Yasser Arafat knew he had to get out of this corner, and partly because, like all Palestinians, he believes violence is not the issue - that the West has adopted Israel's approach and does not see it for what it is, a just resistance to Israeli occupation.

The interview was over and I had seen a glimpse of the fighter. I told him so, and I think it pleased him - he planted a kiss on each of my cheeks, and signed some photographs.

As we drove away in one of his official cars, I heard a haunting strain coming from the vehicle - the song written in 1995 to mark the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the only Israeli prime minister Yasser Arafat remembers as a man of peace and a friend.

The Palestinian official in the car quickly shut the radio off, realising it was tuned to an Israeli channel.

As it cut out, a dark silence seemed to envelop Yasser Arafat's compound.

See also:

14 Feb 02 | Middle East
Arafat takes blame for arms shipment
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