Israel Downplays Threat to Arafat As It Faces International Criticism

Adding confusion to its controversial threat last week to “remove” Yasser Arafat, Israel is playing down the possibility it would have the Palestinian leader killed.

But Israel is still demanding that the Palestinian Authority president be isolated internationally.

“We don’t speak about killing. We didn’t speak about it before, and we don’t speak about it today,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters before his envoy, Dan Gillerman, defended the Security Cabinet decision at the U.N. Security Council on Monday.

“There will be no immediate action. It’s not official policy of the Israeli government,” he said.

The remarks clashed with Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s statements a day before. Olmert said “killing is definitely one of the options” Israel reserves in dealing with Arafat, whom Israeli officials blame with supporting Palestinian terrorism and disrupting the peace process.

But this much was clear: Arafat, whose popularity at home had dipped with every diplomatic downturn while Hamas rivals garnered broad acclaim for their terrorist attacks and tough talk, was back on top.

Taken after two Hamas suicide bombers killed 15 people on Sept. 9, the vaguely worded decision by Israel on Sept. 11 sent Palestinians flocking to Arafat’s crumbling headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah to demonstrate their support for the Palestinian leader.

The crowds at Arafat’s so-called “Muqata” compound soon thinned and took on more of a carnival air, with turns by a marching band and folk dancers. Yet the show of support was beyond doubt.

“The Israelis are too afraid to go against Abu Amar,” a local man said, using Arafat’s nom de guerre. “But even it they tried something, the Muqata would be full again within minutes.”

Israel is believed to have a commando team on standby to swoop in by helicopter and nab the 74-year-old P.A. president.

Military sources do not rule out a ground offensive, which could easily be mounted from one of the army bases surrounding Ramallah. However, it was not clear how Arafat would be taken alive, given his vow last week to die before allowing himself to be exiled.

The wave of censure that followed Israel’s Security Cabinet decision has resonated in Jerusalem.

Saying the government was firm on removing Arafat, a senior Israeli government official said only that “how and when remains to be seen.”

The official said the Palestinian leader could be “removed” from power while remaining blockaded in his compound.

At the U.N. Security Council on Monday, Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, defended Israel’s decision in principle while rapping the international community for still regarding Arafat as a legitimate statesman who has the best interests of his people at heart.

Arafat “endangers lives of innocent Palestinian civilians,” Gillerman said.

The Security Council was discussing a proposal that would demand that Israel refrain from killing Arafat.

Gillerman also accused the U.N. Security Council of hypocrisy.

“The council’s focus should be directed first and foremost at terrorism and at its facilitators, and not at the response to terrorism,” Gillerman said.

The Palestinian representative to the United Nations, Nasser al-Kidwa, left the chamber when Gillerman made his remarks, according to an Israeli official there.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, continued to warn Israel against any action against Arafat.

“The United States government does not support the elimination of him or the exile of Mr. Arafat,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox News on Sunday.

“The consequences would not be good ones. I think you can anticipate that there would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world, and in many other parts of the world.”

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