JERUSALEM – Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, responding to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's offer of permanent exile, said Tuesday he would rather die than leave the West Bank.
Confined to his office in Ramallah since last Friday, Arafat scoffed at Sharon's suggestion that European diplomats could fly Arafat out of the Palestinian territories, never to return.
"Is it his homeland or ours? We were planted here before the prophet Abraham came but it looks like they (Israelis) don't understand history or geography," said Arafat, adding that he would rather be a "martyr" than go into exile. He made the remarks, believed to be his first in public for two days, in an interview with the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera.
"Arafat will stand there and live or get killed and be a martyr," Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said in Cairo, Egypt. Arafat, he said, "will not leave Palestine."
Sharon floated the idea of Arafat's departure during a tour of West Bank army bases, saying he had been asked by European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos whether Arafat would be able to leave Ramallah.
"I told him (Moratinos), if they (European diplomats) would like, they will fly with a helicopter and will take him (Arafat) from here," Sharon said in remarks carried by Israel Radio.
"First, I would have to bring this to the Cabinet. Second, he can't take anyone with him, the murderers who are located around him there. And the third thing is that it would have to be a one-way ticket," Sharon added.
Israel TV on Tuesday showed military chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz urging Sharon to expel Arafat.
During a joint visit to an army base in the West Bank, Mofaz was seen telling Sharon: "We should kick him out." Sharon — apparently unaware his comments were being recorded — replied, "I know." Mofaz continued: "This is an opportunity now that won't return."
European governments responded coldly to the idea, with Britain insisting Arafat should be allowed to remain in the Palestinian areas and Sweden saying his presence could ultimately help peace efforts.
In Germany, Israel's closest European ally, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer sidestepped Sharon's suggestion and appealed to Israel to allow international peace envoys to see Arafat. The European Union and Russia urged Israel to grant Arafat freedom of movement.
Despite Sharon's remarks, the most likely scenario still looks to be an extended standoff at Arafat's office in Ramallah, with the Israeli prime minister hoping the hulking presence of Israeli armor just outside Arafat's door will squeeze him into seeking a halt to attacks against Israel.
The Israeli strategy has produced no tangible benefit so far. Palestinian violence has intensified to the point of almost daily suicide bombings. Arafat, who has thrived on crises throughout his tumultuous career, is trying to use the international media and foreign leaders to stay in the limelight.
As the standoff drags on, Sharon is likely to face increasing pressure to pull Israeli troops out of Arafat's compound, and that could play to Arafat's advantage in the battle for public opinion.
After journalists slipped into the compound, Sharon ordered military commanders to tighten the cordon around the area.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana suggested Tuesday the Middle East would be best served if both Sharon and Arafat stepped aside.
"Neither is a saint, and sometimes I'm inclined to think that perhaps a new generation of persons in Israel and Palestine could in the 21st century come up with a solution," Solana said. "They have faced many battlefields, and it hasn't escaped me that there is something personal between Arafat and Sharon."
When Israeli tanks knocked down the walls to Arafat's compound and parked within earshot of his office on Friday, Israel said the aim was to "isolate" him, though it left open the possibility he could be pushed out later. Israel says the army has since seized weapons, counterfeit money and incriminating documents from the compound.
When Arafat's fate was debated in Sharon's Cabinet last week, security officials argued against expulsion, saying Arafat would cause more problems as a free man abroad, according to Israeli officials.
Israeli troops, meanwhile, appeared to be preparing for a long-term stay at the hilltop compound in Ramallah. Tanks and armored personnel carriers have formed barriers in an ever-widening radius in the streets outside the compound.
An armored bulldozer moved flattened cars to form barricades, picking them up and tipping them on their sides. The army has been digging trenches across some streets and building earthen barricades on others.
The most pressing problem was a shortage of water, which has to be brought in, said an Arafat bodyguard contacted by The Associated Press. Arafat is accompanied by seven civilian aides, but there's been no word on how many security guards are with him. Various media reports have put it at 50 or more.
After three days of sporadic gunbattles at the compound, no shooting has been reported Monday or Tuesday, though the situation remains tense.
If Arafat were to be harmed, even accidentally, it would provoke another wave of Palestinian outrage. This means the Israeli army must try to ensure that nothing bad happens to him.
"The soldiers have been given very strict orders to avoid penetrating Arafat's apartment," said Israeli Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland. "Even more, they have to avoid shooting at the building itself and to take care that Arafat personally will not be hurt."