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Arafat Art Exhibit Draws Israeli Onlookers

An odd photograph hangs in a small gallery: Yasser Arafat's head with trademark checkered headdress superimposed atop the body of American rapper Tupac Shakur (search).

A new exhibit of seven Israeli artists focusing on Arafat highlights Israelis' obsession with the Palestinian leader, a hero to some, a villain to others.

Though the Israeli government has declared him "irrelevant" and bans officials from meeting him, Arafat's image appears everywhere in Israel, from newspaper photos and cartoons to satirical impressions by late night talk show hosts and street posters bearing political messages.

The exhibit includes a charcoal portrait of Arafat, a news photo of Palestinian police fetching a framed picture of Arafat from the rubble of a destroyed police post, an oil painting of a blood-smeared car, and more abstract works.

Many Israelis see the 73-year-old Arafat as a perplexing character. His face remains one of the most recognizable and enigmatic in the world. His longevity — he's survived assassination attempts, battles and even a desert plane crash — makes him more mysterious.

Most recently, Israeli tanks and bulldozers pulverized almost all of his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah (search), and he has not left his office building there for 1 year.

But the attempt to isolate him may have made his image loom larger.

Explaining Israel's preoccupation with Arafat, Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat (search) said Israelis know their security and peace are tied to him, even while some Israeli leaders advocate his exile or assassination.

"Irrespective of the demonizing campaign against Arafat, he is the leader, and at the end of the day you find peace with those who can deliver," Erekat said.

At the Dvir Gallery, close to Tel Aviv's Mediterranean shore, exhibit curator Ory Dessau, 24, said Arafat has became a cultural icon because Israelis attach so much importance to him. They mark him as a demon, only to later call him a peace partner and then to isolate him and batter his headquarters.

"In the Israeli consciousness, Arafat is made into something biblical, eternal," he said. Noting that Arafat has been the target of many assassination attempts, Dessau said, "The press called him a cat with nine lives."

Gallery visitor Revital Gal, 43, said Arafat's image only evoked her frustration with the nearly three-year conflict.

"I'm sick and tired of the whole situation," she said. Reflecting on Arafat's ever-present image, she said it's become like that of Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary hero — and perhaps a little like actor Robert DeNiro's in "Cape Fear."

"Arafat always reminds me of DeNiro in that film; he's let out of jail and all the time people are trying to kill him and he survives," Gal said. "Arafat survives forever and nothing changes."

Dessau said he organized the monthlong exhibit to explore the importance attached to Arafat and the view of some that, while thousands have died in generations of conflict here, perhaps only one death — Arafat's — might bring change.

Artist Adam Rabinowitz, 30, said his photomontage of Arafat as rapper Tupac Shakur is an attempt to defuse a serious subject with humor. Rabinowitz used a photo of Arafat from an old postcard. Still visible is a printed autograph — "with my best wishes" — over part of the face.

Rabinowitz said Tupac and Arafat are both regarded as heroes and at the same time thugs with similarly glamorous and violent lives. The rapper was gunned down in 1996 in Las Vegas.

As for the staying power of Arafat's image, he said, "He's a superstar."