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Arafat: 'No one can bypass the Palestinian people'


RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Yasser Arafat remained defiant Thursday, saying no one can set aside the Palestinian people's choice of him as leader and insisting that U.S. President George Bush never mentioned his name when he called for a change in Palestinian leadership.

"First of all, no one can bypass the Palestinian people and their choice of their leader," said Arafat, speaking with CNN correspondent Brent Sadler.

He said Bush could help his efforts. Asked how that could be since Bush had called for his ouster, Arafat said, "No, actually no, officially no. He didn't mention my name at all."

After Bush's speech last month in which he called for new Palestinian leadership, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said although Bush didn't mention Arafat by name, "the implication was clear."

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Arafat conducted his interview in the single room of his sprawling compound that has not been damaged by Israeli fire. He sleeps in the same room on a mattress and prays on a rug.

As he spoke, Israeli tanks waited outside, as they have on and off the last seven months.

Israel began military operations in the West Bank and Gaza following back-to-back suicide bombings that killed 26 Israelis in Jerusalem last month. A series of suicide bombings and shootings have claimed the lives of more than 220 Israelis since January.

Asked if he felt isolated and besieged in his battered compound, Arafat said, "Look, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is making a big mistake against me. But he's not understanding that ... he hasn't the ability to stop my works with all levels of work which I'm doing now."

"The most important thing is my people and my cause. ... Toward the peace of the land which I had signed with my friend [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin," Arafat said.

"I cannot forget, and no one can forget, this friend had been killed by the fanatic group which is in power now in Israel. They hold our land. I cannot forget and no one can forget that my friend Rabin had signed the peace pact."

Arafat was asked if the Middle East conflict has come down to a personal battle between him and Sharon.

"For me, no, but for him, I think so," said Arafat. "But not only our people but the majority of the Israeli people are with the peace of the brave."

Asked about suicide bombing attacks against Israelis, Arafat said, "I'm against this. I'm doing all my capabilities to prevent it. But not to forget also our civilians are also facing the same problems, the same killing, the same difficulties, and the same tragedies.

"And toward this we have to stop directly what is going on for our children, and for the Israelis and for the Palestinians, and for the Arabs and for ... the Middle East."

Asked if Bush can help him, Arafat said, "Not to forget, he was the first American president who mentioned in the General Assembly of the United Nations a Palestinian independent state."

Peace in the Middle East, Arafat said, "is very important for the international peace all over the world, which means it is very important for the biggest power all over the world -- America."




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