Inside Arafat's Bunker

Under virtual house arrest, the Palestinian leader is playing brave but quietly fretting over his future

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For an hour each afternoon, Yasser Arafat, wearing his checkered kaffiyeh and olive fatigues, paces back and forth the 15 yards from one end of his spartan office to the other. It's a longtime regular form of exercise for the Palestinian leader, but its symbolism has never been more painful to him. If Arafat were to leave his office and walk just four times its length, he would bump into the sharp end of an Israeli Merkava tank. It's a big change from the globe-trotting statesmanship that was Arafat's forte until Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moved his armor to the next block, essentially effecting a house arrest. Though Arafat publicly plays his quandary as a heroic siege, privately he told a visitor last week he feels abandoned by his old backers on the Israeli left and in Washington. "I don't know what I did wrong," Arafat said. "They are sharpening the knives and giving them to Sharon to slaughter me."

In fact, it's no mystery how Arafat alienated old allies. There's that ship, for instance, that the Israelis caught four weeks ago trying to smuggle 50 tons of munitions into the Gaza Strip, a cargo the State Department is now satisfied that Arafat, despite his denials, knew about. Before that, in the summer of 2000, there was Arafat's walking away from the best peace offer Israel has ever made, and then his follow-up move of unleashing a violent new Palestinian uprising. So annoyed is Washington with Arafat that the White House last week essentially endorsed Israel's confinement of him and then leaked that it is considering means of punishing him that include cutting off all ties.

Nothing would delight Israel more. Sharon's strategy is to slowly heap humiliation upon the 72-year-old Arafat to make him seem simply extraneous to his people; the Israeli cabinet already issued a communique that Arafat was "irrelevant" but that it would continue to do business with his Palestinian Authority. Arafat sees the plan being executed every day. Each morning he receives a folder containing an Arabic digest of the Israeli newspapers; in the past week they have been replete with unnamed Israeli military and government sources claiming that Israel wants to see him gone. Two Israeli tanks, an armored personnel carrier and a handful of jeeps outside the shabby Palestinian military compound called the Muqata'a in Ramallah, where Arafat has his West Bank office (his main HQ is in the Gaza Strip), aren't intended as a physical threat. But with each day they stay there, they mock Arafat's nominal authority.

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