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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 October, 2003, 00:01 GMT 01:01 UK
Face to face with Arafat

By James Reynolds
BBC correspondent in Ramallah

It's one of those odd, disappointing rules of journalism - you spend years covering someone's every word and action, you confidently explain the thinking behind everything they ever do.

Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound
Mr Arafat is now virtually under house arrest in his Ramallah compound
But in spite of all this - you never actually meet them.

It's always fairly embarrassing to tell people about this. Most tend to expect foreign correspondents to be confidants and foreign policy advisers to all the main leaders in their area.

There are some reporters like this. But not me.

The most that I can say is that I once helped former President Alberto Fujimori of Peru with his English as we flew over the Amazon jungle.

And that I once kept a fairly forlorn Bolivian vice-president company when I was the only journalist who turned up to his press conference.

Anyway, for two years I've reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And until this week, I'd never actually met the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Q: What will you do if Israel comes to get you?
A: Welcome Israel

Excerpt from Yasser Arafat's interview
But the chance came on Wednesday night.

An American convoy heading into the Gaza Strip had just been attacked - three US security guards were dead.

Politically this was bad news for the Palestinians - it seemed that they were picking a fight with the country meant to be mediating in this conflict.

Now, the Americans will no longer speak to Mr Arafat.

But he clearly wanted to get his own message across. So, late at night, he called us in to his compound in Ramallah for an interview.

'Tiny figure'

His is not much of a kingdom. Most of his offices have been destroyed by Israeli army bulldozers.

Palestinian security officials at the scene of the Gaza blast
The US blamed Yasser Arafat for the recent attack on its convoy in Gaza

The Palestinian leader has been stuck here amid the rubble for more than a year.

Israel has threatened to remove him - but despite this, the security at Mr Arafat's ruined compound was fairly passive.

Half a dozen guards lounged around on plastic chairs outside the sandbagged entrance.

They were watched by a white cat - who looked much more alert than any of the guards.

We were led up past the sandbags into a small office on the first floor - opposite what looked like a bedroom. We set up our cameras and lights. One of Mr Arafat's men looked in and called the lighting romantic.

Then, Mr Arafat himself walked in slowly. He was a tiny figure - dwarfed by his baggy uniform and his head-dress.

He shook hands with each of us, sat down and announced that he didn't like the romantic lighting. So we switched on the fluorescent lights instead.

Angry

And then we began.

Yasser Arafat
The Palestinian leader became angry during the interview

I started off with what I'd ranked as my killer point - the fact that President George Bush had just released a statement blaming Mr Arafat for getting in the way of peace.

But it didn't seem to bother him at all.

"It's his point of view," he said.

So, I pressed him a bit further. And then he got angry.

"You are speaking for the Americans?" he asked me. "Do not forget," he said, leaning forward and pointing, "you are speaking with Yasser Arafat."

This proved to be the pattern for the next 20 minutes or so.

I would ask a question. He would dodge it, accuse me of forgetting a key point and then start into a mini-speech which I could never quite cut short.

At times he didn't even like the most innocuous of openings.

"You are the acknowledged leader of the Palestinians..." I began.

"This is a problem for you?" he interrupted. "You are against our constitution?"

And on we lurched. I asked him why he and his first Prime Minister Abu Mazen had argued so much.

"This is not accurate," he said.

"You have made another fatal mistake," he added, looking fairly pleased with himself.

I changed the subject: "What will you do if Israel comes to get you?"

"Welcome Israel," he said with a smile. It was obviously his standard reply - it certainly amused his entourage who were crowded all around me.

Silence

And then I ended by asking him about his health - since there'd been so many recent rumours of heart attacks, of stomach cancer, even of mysterious poisonings.

But he said nothing. Instead he kissed his hands and looked upwards. He seemed very pleased with this silent answer.

And we then moved onto what seemed to be Mr Arafat's favourite part - the photocall.

First, there was a group photo.

"And now, one by one," the leader called out happily. So we obediently queued up to have individual portraits taken with him. He very much enjoyed this.

Then we stood around talking.

Small talk

This, of course, should have been my chance to ask all those vital offbeat questions I should have been storing up in my mind for two years.

Instead - fairly crushingly - I drifted into the most banal of small talk.

"Do you ever miss going outside?" I asked Mr Arafat.

He walked over to the window and pulled open the curtains.

"This is the only place I can get air," he said.

He opened the window and breathed in dramatically, looking at me - it seemed - for approval.

I then found myself looking at the many badges he wears on his crowded lapel - there was one in particular of entwined Israeli and Palestinian flags.

I wanted to ask him about it - but his aides were calling him. And he was gone.

Now, at least, I can say that I've met the man whose daily words, actions and illnesses I cover.

But I'm not sure I'm much wiser.

I can't say I worked out who was more real - the eager old man breathing in fresh air, or the angry leader who warned me never to forget who he was.

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