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Arafat: 'I hope I will be a martyr'

Arafat's compound in Ramallah is surrounded by Israeli tanks.
Arafat's compound in Ramallah is surrounded by Israeli tanks.  

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his headquarters surrounded by Israeli tanks, said Friday that he hopes the ongoing Israeli operation will make him into a martyr.

"They either want to kill me, or capture me, or expel me," Arafat said, speaking by telephone to Al Jazeera television from his Ramallah headquarters. "I hope I will be a martyr in the Holy Land. I have chosen this path and if I fall, one day a Palestinian child will raise the Palestinian flag above our mosques and churches."

Arafat also said no one in the Arab world would "surrender or bow" to Israel and warned that "to Palestine, millions of martyrs will flow."

Earlier, Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Sharon's comments were a declaration of war against the Palestinian people and Israel's actions were a response to the Mideast peace proposal, adopted Thursday by Arab League delegates in Beirut.

Abu Rudeineh also urged the United States and the world community to stop the Israeli operation and "isolate Sharon and his government."

Earlier Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had announced an extended military operation against Palestinian terrorism "everywhere it exists."

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"Arafat has established a coalition of terrorism against Israel," Sharon said, shortly after an all-night Cabinet meeting. "He is an enemy and at this stage he will be isolated." (Full story)

Israel's move came after a Palestinian terror attack killed 21 people at a Passover dinner Wednesday night in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya. The militant wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for that attack, a suicide bombing.

As Sharon spoke, Israeli tanks and bulldozers laid siege to Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, tearing down the fences and walls surrounding the compound while the Palestinian Authority president and his advisers were inside.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Nabil Sha'ath asked Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Friday to use his international contacts to try to pressure Israel to stop its military moves against Arafat's compound in Ramallah.

Lebanese government sources said Hariri expressed anger at the Israeli operation and vowed to take action. Hariri promised to call Russian President Vladimir Putin, European heads of state and U.S. President George Bush.

As tensions were mounting Thursday, Arafat had said he was ready to implement the Tenet cease-fire proposal "without conditions."

"I would like to reiterate our readiness to work for an immediate cease-fire," Arafat said, adding that he had informed U.S. Middle East Envoy Anthony Zinni, who is in the region.

But Arafat's words -- delivered in Arabic at a Ramallah news conference -- were immediately doubted by Israeli officials, who demanded action rather than words.

"We're quite fed up with those declarations that Arafat makes every time he feels the pressure is mounting on him," Ra'anan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said after Arafat's speech.

Violence in the region continued even as Arafat said he was ready for a cease-fire. Israeli police said a Palestinian gunman killed four Israeli settlers in the Alon Moreh settlement near Nablus before he was killed by Israeli forces. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

On Friday, two Israeli civilians were killed in a stabbing in the Netzarim settlement in Gaza.

In an interview with CNN, Gissin said Arafat must arrest those responsible for the escalation of violence against Israelis.

"He has to take real action," Gissin said. "Declarations won't do. They won't get him off the hook. This time it's a moment of truth, and lies will not cover up."

Arafat has said in the past that he would accept the work plan proposed by CIA Director George Tenet. However, the Palestinian Authority had raised a number of concerns in recent days and Zinni had been attempting to bridge the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians.

In addition to his stated willingness to begin the implementation of the Tenet proposal, Arafat also said Thursday he had notified Zinni that the Palestinians also were willing to implement the Mitchell report recommendations.

Named after former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the Mitchell report calls for a resumption of security cooperation, a halt to the construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, a denunciation of terrorism and resumption of peace talks.

Arafat has issued similar calls for an end to the violence in the past. In December, he urged Palestinian groups to observe a "complete and immediate cessation of all military activities ... especially suicide attacks."

Despite an initial decrease in violence, hopes that call would lead to a breakthrough withered in a spate of Palestinian terror attacks and targeted assassinations by Israel. Relations between the Sharon government and Arafat further eroded when a 50-ton arms shipment, linked to Palestinian officials by both Israel and the United States, was seized en route to Gaza in January.

Amid intense international efforts to lay the groundwork for a cease-fire, the Palestinian leadership issued another call last week for an end to terror attacks inside Israel. Despite that, suicide attacks by Palestinian groups have continued unabated, including Wednesday's Passover attack. The death toll in that terror attack rose to 21 on Thursday.

Palestinians ready for retaliation

In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians were girding for an anticipated retaliation for Wednesday's attack in Netanya, Israel, in which a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into a hotel and set off explosives in the crowded dining room of a seaside resort on the first night of the Jewish religious celebration of Passover. The terror attack also wounded more than 170 people.

The bombing severely damaged the ground floor of the Park Hotel in Netanya. The bomber apparently walked past a security guard into the lobby of the hotel at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday (12:15 p.m. EST) and approached the dining room, where police said 227 Israelis had gathered for their traditional Seder meal on the first night of the Jewish Passover celebration. All but three dozen people were injured or killed. (More on the bombing)

In his speech, Arafat said he expected a reprisal. "Regrettably, I have to tell you that at this particular moment there are Israeli aggressive preparations to initiate and launch a massive military operation against our people, our refugee camps, our villages, our towns and our facilities and installations," he said.

Others shared Arafat's opinion.

"We are expecting large-scale operation, retaliation in next few hours," Farouq Kaddoumi, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's political chief, told delegates Thursday attending the Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon.

The White House remained noncommittal on Arafat's comments Thursday as senior administration officials evaluated the situation. On Wednesday, President Bush condemned the suicide bombing in Netanya as "cold-blooded killing" and said Arafat needs to do everything in his power to stop the attacks.

The so-called "Passover massacre" caused ripples beyond the Middle East, too. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the attack "heartless and indiscriminate" and said "it greatly damages the Palestinian cause." Annan said he called Arafat and Sharon, asking each to declare an immediate cease-fire.

Kaddoumi's comments about Israeli retaliation came shortly before the Arab League summit unanimously adopted an Arab peace initiative aimed at providing normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, allowing the "return of refugees" and the recognition of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. (More on the Arab summit)

Responding to the Arab peace initiative, the Foreign Ministry source said that, although Israel does not agree with all the terms of the initiative, it welcomes the attempt to form a "consensus around peace."(Text of the initiative)

Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group that has been labeled by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for Wednesday's suicide attack and said the bomber was a Palestinian from the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Hamas has a military wing that has carried out attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets during the 18-month-old Al Aqsa Intifada.

Israeli officials have demanded that Arafat arrest the leaders of terrorist organizations responsible for the spate of attacks on Israelis over the past 19 months. "He has to dismantle these terrorist organizations," said Gissin, one of Sharon's top advisers.

But Palestinian official Sha'ath, saying the Israeli army "destroyed our police force," said Palestinian officials can't make arrests when Israel is "tying our hands behind our backs and tying our eyes so as not to see."

Sha'ath said the key arrests can be made only after the Tenet plan is implemented.

"The Tenet plan would mean end of the siege," Sha'ath said. "It would mean getting the Israeli tanks out, it would mean allowing him to rebuild his police force. It would mean allowing [Arafat] to rebuild hope among his people."




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