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Saturday, 29 June, 2002, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Arafat: On borrowed time
Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat is politically speaking a dead man walking

"Run!"

The shout came from the back of our little group, from a colleague who had spotted an Israeli army jeep prowling around the corner.

So, one more time, we ran - dragging our camera equipment, breathing hard under our bullet proof vests.

The only cover in sight was the long grass in the back garden of a man once dubbed "the face of terror" by Time magazine.


President Bush wasn't talking about me

Yasser Arafat
We buzzed on the intercom, and we were welcomed into the home of Bassam Abu Sharif - to talk and to hide.

The violence of his past is carved into his flesh - blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, missing several fingers. All thanks to a letter bomb from the Israeli spy agency Mossad back in the 70s.

Tepid welcome

In those days, Mr Abu Sharif was a hijacker of note. But he gave up the gun long ago, and began working for a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Now he lives on Yasser Arafat's doorstep in Ramallah, and is one of his most charismatic advisers.

We stood at an upstairs window, looking down the road to the Muqataa - the Palestinian leader's compound - remodelled over months by Israel's missiles, explosives and tanks.

Bassam Abu Sharif
Abu Sharif: conflict etched into his flesh
"Arafat's not upset by the Bush speech," he insisted. "We cannot believe that the American president was calling for a coup d'etat," he said, a polite smile on his scarred face.

The official Palestinian line is a tepid welcome for the speech. Off the record, those closest to Mr Arafat acknowledge that it was disastrous for him and his people.

We pressed on, stealing back out through the garden, racing to the edge of the compound.

A convoy of French diplomatic cars came sweeping up to the gaping hole where the gates used to be. As they distracted the Israeli troops, we dashed in. These days it takes guerrilla tactics to reach the democratically-elected leader of the Palestinian people.

Reign coming to an end

But he is a leader on borrowed time. And that is how he looked several hours later when he struggled outside into the sunlight, wearing a hunted look under his trademark scarf.


For two close to two years, decay has been closing in on Arafat like a cold wind

His response to the speech was an attempt at denial.

"President Bush wasn't talking about me," he said, eyes wide in mock surprise.

But even to many of his own people, politically speaking, he is a dead man walking. Palestinians may rally around him. He may even be re-elected next January. But his long reign as supreme leader is coming to an end.

For close to two years decay has been closing in on Arafat like a cold wind. The intifada has raged for 21 months. All his people have to show for it are their dead - more than 1,400 now.

Suicide bombing

Their legendary leader hasn't led them far lately. Israel is back in control of the West Bank and there is no sign of a Palestinian state.

It was hard to ask Palestinians their opinion this week. Across the West Bank they are under curfew - three quarters of a million people locked in their own homes by the Israeli forces who have retaken their towns.

Suicide bomb blast 18 June
Failure to stop the suicide bombings has sealed Mr Arafat's fate in Washington
We saw almost no sign of life on Ramallah's broad streets, apart from a group of young boys playing a brave game of football. Two men were shouting encouragement from the top floor of a tower block. On a hoarding on the side of the building a giant poster of Arafat was being battered by the wind.

Twelve days ago I stood near a bus stop in Jerusalem during the early morning rush hour, surrounded by noise and grief and human remains. Gradually, the tangle of police and rescue workers cleared, revealing a long line of bodies, wrapped in black plastic bags - numbered 1 to 19.

Hamas

These were the men, women and children who had been warm and breathing and alive moments before. They had boarded a bus to go to school, or work. After they sat down, and began to talk, or read, or day dream, they were joined by a suicide bomber.

An Israeli official arrived at the scene and ran his eye along the row of bodies - nodding his head in a silent count. "Bye-bye Yasser," he said.

Yasser Arafat's failure, or unwillingness, to stop the suicide bombings has sealed his fate with the Americans. But in trying to push him aside they are risking far worse. If he goes there is no guarantee who will succeed him.

And his departure could mean more support for Hamas - the extremist group which sends the human bombs.

America has its own men in the race for the succession. One White House favourite is Mohammed Dahlan, the smooth-talking, sharply-dressed former security chief in Gaza. His close ties to the White House have earned him the nickname, Condoleeza, after America's national security advisor, Condoleeza Rice.

When I interviewed him some time ago, I asked him what he thought lay ahead. "It's obvious," he said. "The Israelis and the Palestinians, together we are going to hell."

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29 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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