RAMALLAH, West Bank – Yasser Arafat is free to leave this West Bank city whenever he wants, Israel's defense minister said Monday. But it remained unclear exactly when the Palestinian leader would leave his compound, where he has been isolated since early April.
"Already today, Arafat can go where he chooses," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in Jerusalem.
But Palestinian Authority Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Arafat would not be able to leave until six Palestinian men wanted by the Israelis were transferred to a Jericho prison, where they will be guarded by American and British security officers.
"We have guarantees from the Americans and the British that President Arafat will be free to move inside the Palestinian territories and even outside the Palestinian territories, with guarantees of return," Rabbo said.
Other officials have said Arafat would still be restricted to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel has confined the Palestinian leader to Ramallah since December, and he has been isolated in his compound here for several weeks. But a deal to end his confinement was brokered over the weekend by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
Israeli officials on Monday said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to the terms of Arafat's impending release in exchange for a U.S. commitment to support Israel's stance on a U.N. investigation of the weeklong attack on the West Bank town of Jenin.
"I assume that ... some sort of agreement was reached, some sort of deal, according to which Ariel Sharon gave up on his insistence that Arafat be isolated in his headquarters ... and at this stage, we win U.S. backing concerning our reservations on the issue of the U.N. committee," said Israel's deputy defense minister, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof.
Israel said it would not cooperate with the U.N. mission unless demands for changes in the composition and mandate of the team were met.
"I think we have to disagree with the United Nations now, even at the cost of world opinion," said Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir, accusing the U.N. of an anti-Israel bias. "They want to set us up," he said.
Arafat, meanwhile, was not expected to take Israel up on the offer of leaving his compound immediately, for fear Israeli forces might storm the building and seize the prisoners as soon as he departs.
Four of the six men are members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an old-line radical-left PLO faction, and were convicted by a makeshift Palestinian court of taking part in the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi last October.
The other two men are Ahmed Saadat, the PFLP's leader, and Fuad Shobaki, a top Arafat aide suspected by the Israelis of involvement of the arms shipment discovered aboard the Karine A, a cargo ship seized by the Israeli Navy on the Red Sea earlier this year.
Sharon had initially insisted the six men be handed over to Israel, making the demand a precondition for Arafat being able to leave Ramallah.
Beginning in December, the Israeli military initially forbade Arafat from leaving Ramallah. After a suicide bombing in Israel that killed over 20 people on the first night of Passover, troops took over the Palestinian government compound itself in early April, reducing Arafat's personal sphere of authority to two rooms.
In the end, Sharon agreed to Bush's personal request to accept the deal and won his Cabinet's approval, 17-8, after a stormy six-hour session.
As for the prison in Jericho where the six wanted men would be held, Rabbo said it was "built by the British, and so it matches what the British are asking for."
Britain occupied what was known as the Palestine Mandate from the end of World War I until the birth of the state of Israel in 1948.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.