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Israel Defends Decision to Remove Arafat

By IAN JAMES, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM - Israeli leaders defended their decision to "remove" Yasser Arafat despite international condemnation, saying he is an obstacle to peace and should have been cast aside years ago.

Statements of concern rolled in from country after country Friday a day after Israel made the vaguely worded announcement that it would act to remove Arafat. The threat set off pro-Arafat marches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip , and drew opposition from the European Union , the United Nations and Arab countries.

On Saturday, thousands of schoolchildren rallied outside Arafat's sandbagged office Saturday as he waved and blew kisses from a window. "In our souls and our blood we defend Abu Ammar," the children shouted, using Arafat's nom de guerre.

Violence in the Palestinian territories continued, with Israeli troops chasing militants through the narrow alleys of Nablus' Old City early Saturday. The pursuit set off shooting that killed an elderly man who watched the fighting from a window, Palestinian witnesses said.

On Friday, Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat bristled at the U.S. government's insistence on letting Arafat be.

"Israel is an independent and sovereign state," she said. "It doesn't take orders from America."

A defiant Arafat emerged from his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for a second straight night Friday and rallied hundreds of supporters, saying: "To Jerusalem we are going as martyrs in the millions."

The crowd held photos of Arafat and chanted: "With our blood and souls we will redeem you." Arafat answered: "With our blood and souls, we will redeem you, Palestine."

As the crowd left the compound, a dozen Palestinians remained behind, saying they would stay in tents there and act as human shields if Israeli troops try to seize their leader.

The Israeli threats only seemed to bolster Arafat, who has been trapped in his office for nearly two years by troops and threats that he might not be allowed back.

Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned both the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers to emphasize the United States' opposition to exiling Arafat.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said many calls of concern came in from governments across the world.

"They're asking us to do nothing against Yasser Arafat," he said. "Has the world turned on its head?"

Israel's government says as long as the 74-year-old Palestinian leader continues to wield authority, peacemaking efforts will fail. It maintains Arafat is at least indirectly to blame for attacks on Israeli civilians and accused him of doing nothing with security forces under his control to crack down on Islamic militant groups.

Still, Israeli troops made no move to oust him from Ramallah, and on Friday abandoned lookout positions on top floors of two buildings overlooking his compound.

In his brief address to supporters, Arafat offered thanks "to all the free people of the world, for standing by their Palestinian brothers."

In New York, meanwhile, the Palestinians urged the U.N. Security Council to intervene and demand that Israel not expel Arafat and halt any threats to his safety.

"It would be unwise to expel him," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan  told reporters in Geneva.

Israel's security Cabinet announced its decision on Thursday after two Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 15 Israelis two days earlier. In their statement, Israeli leaders declared Arafat "a complete obstacle" to peace and said "Israel will work to remove this obstacle in the manner, at the time, and in the ways that will be decided on separately."

That wording makes room for several options: deporting Arafat, capturing him or killing him.

The Israeli decision means that Sharon and Mofaz could decide on expelling Arafat without reconvening the Cabinet. Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland said in comments carried by Israel TV that "there can be several plans for different situations."

Abroad, condemnation of the decision was widespread. France warned that expelling Arafat would be an error and the Arab League said Israel had in effect "declared war" on the peace process.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Powell told him in a phone call that the United States pressed Israel to call off any immediate move against Arafat. He said Powell also gave assurances that the United States would push Israel to meet key commitments of the stalled "road map" peace plan, in particular to withdraw forces from Palestinian cities and freeze settlement construction.

A newly appointed Palestinian national security council met Friday, and Shaath said members decided they would come up with an overarching security plan within two days. While he didn't specify what sort of actions the council is considering, he said it would seek to follow through with obligations under the road map, which calls for Palestinian militant groups to be dismantled.


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