'YASSER ARAFAT - A RARE INTERVIEW - 6 FEB 2002'
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6 February 2002 04:40:33am
FACE TO FACE WITH ARAFAT
By Alexandra Williams
Arafat, talking after a 16-month Palestinian uprising which has left almost 1,000 people dead, tells me: "The whole international community will be directly affected by what happens here.
"Our peace is the platform for the whole peace.
"Britain and other countries must act now to stop the situation. I'm asking for all our friends to work very hard and very quickly to help end the conflict."
Arafat is virtually under house arrest as Israeli tanks surround his West Bank compound at Ramallah.
But the 72-year-old, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation since 1969, says: "We are ready to end the conflict.
"I am committed to peace for the future of our children and their children, and for the future of world peace.
Arafat declares: "We can live as an equal neighbour alongside Israel."
He is vilified by Israelis as the one man who could stop the suicide bombers, yet refuses.
And our interview late on Monday began with a blunt question: "Mr Arafat, are Hamas and other extremist Arab groups, terrorists?"
He smiles at me across his desk and mumbles almost inaudibly. He shifts a little in his chair.
ALL those groups who are working against our decisions have been outlawed. We have arrested those in the military wings," he responds.
But do you consider them to be terrorist groups, I repeat.
His eyes fix me and he snaps back.
"You will have to ask the Israelis because the Israelis are the ones who established Hamas."
I am asking you, I say.
The voice is even but firm. "Ask the Israelis," he says again.
"When we arrived here in our Palestine, they were already established. My late partner Yitzhak Rabin (Israeli premier killed by Jewish extremists in 1995) admitted to this."
Rather like the irony of the relationship between the US and Osama bin Laden, I offer.
"Exactly," he grins.
For a man under siege, Arafat is remarkably buoyant. I ask if Middle East peace is likely in his lifetime.
Raising his voice and throwing his arms in the air, he says: "There is no doubt. No doubt.
"This is the Holy Land for all the Palestinians, for all the Israelis, for all the Middle East countries, for the Christians and the Muslims.
"We can live as an equal neighbour alongside Israel." The Palestinian revolt, blamed on a visit to a Muslim holy site by then Israeli defence chief Ariel Sharon, has mutated into a conflict with two ageing adversaries at the helm. Sharon, now Prime Minister, is a year older at 73. Although both retain an extraordinary popularity among their people, many have written Arafat off and say he privately fears peace is unattainable. If there is any truth in this, it does not show. He seems to be thriving on crisis.
The diminutive leader is passionate in his defence of his cause, and optimistic. He has a reputation for being a difficult interview subject, known for his bellicose and crafty answers.
The person I meet is polite, focused and sharp.
But he certainly has an agenda and often his answers do not match the questions.
His compound office is long and narrow with a picture on the two end walls of the Al-Aqsa Mosque - the third most holy site in Islam, which Sharon visited with an escort of 1,000 police officers.
Wearing an oversized pair of black-rimmed glasses with thick lenses, Arafat is hunched over his large desk, signing papers.
As I walk in he does not look up and two advisers tip-toe around the leader.
One tells me within earshot of Arafat: "If you want my advice ask about the siege. He will like that and then he will soften and it will be easier to ask the other questions."
He then opens the glass cabinet next to Arafat's desk and pulls out a Christmas card from the Blairs. It has a photograph of the family on the front and is signed "Best wishes Tony and Cherie".
"You must put this in your article," he says.
Arafat suddenly takes an interest and putting down his pen, adds: "I was sent this by Tony Blair. I am in permanent contact with Prime Minister Blair you know."
He pauses. This is where I am meant to show how impressed I am. Perhaps my nod is insufficient because he adds: "I am in permanent contact with the whole world you know."
He then continues: "Now, please sit down. You can ask me anything you want - it's a free country, although we are surrounded by Israeli tanks."
I take note of his adviser and ask about the surge in violence in the past few months. Naturally Sharon is to blame, according to Arafat. He said: "The escalation in violence is their escalation. Look what happened today in Gaza. They killed five - one of them is our officer. And four plastic factories and a textile factory were burned.
"And as you see, they kill many of our citizens and you can see the tanks 20 metres from here.
"Who can accept this internationally? They are breaking all the agreements, cancelling all that they have signed, including Sharon."
But what of the violence perpetrated by the Palestinians, I ask. He replies: "The increase in violence is because of the Israelis. We want peace.
"I condemn the killing of innocent civilians whether they are Israeli, American or Palestinian. We are dealing with this." The pressure on Arafat is relentless.
Despite an understanding reached several months ago with Hamas and Islamic Jihad that neither would attack Israel, both resumed their deadly business last month.
Although reluctant to brand such groups as terrorists, Arafat has said: "I condemn attacks carried out by terrorist groups against Israeli civilians.
"These groups do not represent the Palestinian people or their legitimate aspirations for freedom."
Israel claims that Arafat, having wasted the best available peace settlement offer when he walked away from Camp David negotiations in 2000, has reverted to terrorism.
Sharon has branded him "Israel's bin Laden" and "irrelevant".
Arafat laughs when I ask how he reacted to Sharon's recent statement that he wished he had killed him in Beirut 20 years ago.
Leaning over his desk and looking me straight in the eye, he says: "He wants to assassinate me. What is new? Thirteen times he tries.
"But enough of this. The most important thing is not myself but my people who are suffering day and night, day and night. They suffer the humiliation for 16 months now.
SOME of our people have died on these checkpoints, like two women who were obliged to give birth there. They were prevented from going to hospital. Many of our children are killed."
Arafat stresses the importance of Britain's involvement in the peace process and says world peace rests on the Middle East.
Historically, America has supported Israel, but it seems Arafat senses a back-door route to the US by forging closer ties with Britain, America's main ally in the fight against world terrorism.
He says: "We are co-operating with Britain in the war against terror. I value Britain very much and we are very grateful for all that Mr Blair has done.
"He came to visit me in Gaza, don't forget. He has sent envoys here, including Lord Levy and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw."
Arafat's plans for a Palestinian state, include establishing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and West Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
He makes a bizarre comparison with Rome and Brussels as proof that the idea it is realistic.
He says: "Rome - the capital for the Vatican and for Italy. Brussels - the capital for the European Union and for Belgium. It works.
"It will be just as it was before the 1967 war.
"And the Israelis can have free access to the East if they desire."
NO SMALL TALK OVER DINNER
YASSER Arafat's hands are like his favourite peeled, hard-boiled eggs in texture and colour.
He has the smoothest, softest skin I have ever touched - yet Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon says those same hands are bathed in the blood of innocents.
In an extraordinary encounter, I had dinner with Arafat in his Ramallah HQ on the West Bank earlier this week.
The Palestinian leader insisted I share his specially prepared eggs with the yolks removed - a rare honour for a visitor - and showed me the correct way to dip sesame seed bread in honey and grapes.
The meal over, he then gave The Mirror an exclusive interview - his first with a British tabloid newspaper - in which he begged Tony Blair to help stop the Middle East bloodshed.
He said: "We are ready to end the conflict. I am committed to peace."
Getting to meet 72-year-old Arafat in the looking glass world of the Holy Land is no easy business. I had tried and failed several times before.
This time, after prolonged negotiations, a date and time was arranged. So, on Monday, Mirror photographer Ian Vogler and I waited patiently in the lobby of the Grand Park Hotel in the West Bank for contact to be made.
And we waited and waited. The man who talks peace but who Sharon calls "our bin Laden" keeps unpredictable hours.
At 7.45pm, our translator Reem received a call asking for the spelling of our names. Two hours later, a tall man with a moustache appeared in the lobby.
"Alexandra? Ian? I take you to the President," he said.
Outside, a chauffeur in a white Peugeot - the cleanest car I have ever seen in the dusty West Bank - was waiting.
Soon, we were being whisked through the quiet streets of Ramallah which still bore the ravages of recent battles between the Israeli military and Palestinian gunmen.
JUST six minutes later, we arrived outside the gates of Arafat's besieged compound.
Apart from our mobile phones being removed and our bags searched, security was surprisingly lax.
There was no metal detector and we were not frisked. But the fortified HQ teemed with guards armed with machine guns.
We were met by a suave man in a navy suit - Nabil Abu Rdeineh, Arafat's loyal aide and spokesman. He told us: "Our man doesn't like personal questions. OK? He's the only man on earth who doesn't like talking about himself. OK?
"No questions about his wife, his daughter, what he likes to eat and where he sleeps. OK? Now tell me what you want to ask."
So Arafat's life with his wife of 10 years, Soha, and their daughter Zahwa was definitely off limits.
We were ushered into a second floor room that looked like a doctor's waiting area but was as smoky as a pub. After 30 minutes a man nodded to us, and whispered: "Walk past the president and shake his hand. He would like you to eat with us."
Standing at the door was a short figure in his trademark heavy military jacket and black and white kofieh. Arafat - Nobel Peace Prize winner and, say the Israelis, a terrorist unwilling to halt the killing.
His looks did not disappoint. Spitting Image's puppet of him was faithful to its subject, though nowadays Arafat's famous bottom lip tremor is barely noticeable.
We were led next door where a splendid dinner table was set for 20.
The guests included Head of Preventive Forces in Gaza Mohammed Dahlan, the Minister of Non-Governmental Organisation Affairs Hassan Asfour, lawyer Maie Sarraf and Rabeiha Diab, an activist who I met at last week's funeral of woman suicide bomber Wafa Idris.
I sat next to Arafat and thought of Sharon's recent remark that he regretted not killing the PLO chief 20 years ago. Arafat's bodyguard stood behind us.
The room was silent apart from the noise of diners slurping their starter - courgette soup. I had been warned that no politics were to be discussed at the meal.
What small talk does one engage a world leader in, I wondered? Or a terrorist, depending on your point view.
But Arafat did not seem to be in the mood for conversation. Instead, he was tucking into his meal. Dishes of sauces, cheeses, salads and raw vegetables filled the table. But Arafat had a personal menu and his own waiter. It is widely believed that his food is tested for poison. All eyes were on the Palestinian chief, with no one daring to relax. Then came the breakthrough.
HE devoured four of his beloved yolkless eggs - then took the fifth from his plate and put it on mine.
Cue much mirth. Even the smallest witticism by Arafat would trigger peals of laughter from his entourage.
Judging from the expressions on the faces of the other diners I realised I was honoured to receive such a gift from the president.
Later, pieces of peeled apple landed on my plate courtesy of Arafat. He then offered me crushed poppy seeds and honey. When I helped myself to a small slice of cake he leaned over me, picked up a large piece and placed it on my plate. He was having fun teaching this Brit about Palestinian delicacies.
"Nutritious and delicious," he told me. His hospitality was generous. Arafat was a kind and considerate host.
From time to time he wiped his face with a paper napkin, sending crumbs trapped in the grey hairs sprouting from his chin tumbling on to his jacket.
There, they collected on a ridge formed by the rim of his bulletproof vest.
When Arafat finished, dinner ended for everyone else. "You won't put on any calories after this meal," he said to me as he walked out of the room. Half an hour later, Ian and I were led into Arafat's vast office with a red carpet and two stunning photographs, five feet square, of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.
AIDES were pussy-footing around their chief, careful not to disturb his concentration as he signed a pile of papers on his massive desk.
The desk was adorned with little Palestinian flags, plastic souvenir mosques, a box of tissues, a staple gun and a hole-punch. I was offered a seat facing the president while Ian was given free rein to take pictures.
Arafat, who spoke English throughout the interview, has been a prisoner in his West Bank HQ since early December. Enraged by a spate of suicide bombings, Israelis have put him under effective arrest until he fulfils new conditions to stamp out terrorism.
Sharon recently declared Arafat would remain in Ramallah "for as long as the assassins are at large". But Arafat brushed the threat aside. He said: "The assassins are not here. They are in Israel."
Israeli tanks stand outside his compound. One is parked under a huge sign advertising Viceroy cigarettes, with the slogan "The Big Taste of America".
Spent teargas grenades litter the pot-holed streets. In the distance Pez Got, an illegal Jewish settlement, can be seen.
The Israelis have also commandeered several buildings around the compound. A large Israeli flag now flutters on a former Palestinian block of flats.
After interviewing Arafat, we were taken through the smoky corridors to the exit. A chauffeur was contacted on a walkie-talkie and we were led outside into the cold night.
We walked past a warehouse bristling with new Mercedes cars. The presidential car, barely used these days, was also visible.
The helipad has also not been used since early December when Arafat's "presidential" helicopters were destroyed in their Gaza hangar by the Israelis.
THE devastating strike followed suicide bomber attacks and car bombs in Jerusalem and Haifa.
When we returned to the Grand Park Hotel, business seemed to have picked up.
Before we left to meet Arafat we were the only guests. Now half a dozen more had mysteriously checked in. There is no tourism in the West Bank and it is hardly a place where business people stay overnight.
My office sent me a fax which promptly disappeared from the front desk on arrival. I caught a guest photocopying it and faxing it to someone.
We returned to Jerusalem yesterday in the morning rush hour. It is 10 miles from Ramallah but the journey can take up to two and a half hours because of heavy Israeli security precautions.
Palestinians are subjected to daily humiliation at checkpoints. Yesterday, we saw an ambulance with its siren blaring unable to get through a traffic jam for 20 minutes.
The Israelis say they have no choice but to set up these checkpoints, where they search those entering from the West Bank, because of the escalation of terrorism.
In Jerusalem alone 29 Israelis have been killed in the last six months by Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered in the endless cycle of violence which has left almost 1,000 dead in the last 16 months.
The only certainty in this land drenched with blood and fear is that there is no end in sight to the tragedy.
That leaves the question - is the genteel host I met at dinner a man of war or peace?
[TVOTW Insert - Yasser Arafat died in mysterious circumstances on 11 Nov 2004 - just 2 years and 9 months after this interview.]
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