JERUSALEM – The international community roundly condemned Israel on Friday for its decision to expel Yasser Arafat (search), but leaders of the Jewish state shrugged off the criticism.
"In the early hours of this morning the phones rang from all over the world," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) said. "They're asking us to do nothing against Yasser Arafat. Has the world turned on its head?"
A day after Israel’s security Cabinet said it would act to “remove” the Palestinian leader in a vaguely worded decision, the European Union, the United Nations, Arab countries and the United States voiced opposition.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) telephoned both Shalom and the Palestinian foreign minister to emphasize the United States' disappointment. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said "it would not help matters; it would only serve to give [Arafat] a broader stage."
Israeli leaders countered that the world had no right to criticize a country facing constant homicide bombings and that Arafat should have been kicked out long ago.
As for Arafat, he continued to appear defiant in public. He emerged from his headquarters in Ramallah for a second straight night Friday and thanked the world's "free peoples" for their support.
To hundreds of Palestinian supporters, the Palestinian leader said: "To Jerusalem we are going as martyrs in the millions."
The crowd lifted photos of Arafat high in the air, chanting, "With our blood and souls we will redeem you." Arafat answered: "With our blood and souls, we will redeem you Palestine."
As the crowd left, a dozen Palestinians showed their devotion to their leader by remaining in the compound and setting up tents, saying they would act as human shields if Israeli troops move to seize Arafat. In addition, thousands of Palestinians held pro-Arafat rallies throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israel, however, seemed to pull back from any immediate operation, abandoning lookout positions on top floors of two buildings overlooking Arafat's compound.
The Palestinians urged the U.N. Security Council (search) to demand that Israel stop the expulsion. The Council discussed a resolution late Friday and then adjourned until Monday, despite Palestinian pressure for a quick vote.
Israel's government says that as long as the 74-year-old Arafat continues to wield authority, peacemaking efforts will fail. Still, Israel made no move to oust him from Ramallah.
Arafat has been trapped in his office for nearly two years by troops and threats that he might not be allowed back.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, police stormed the city's most hotly disputed holy site Friday, firing tear gas and stun grenades to break up a crowd of Muslim worshippers who police said threw stones down at Jews praying at the Western Wall. Some witnesses said they didn't see stones thrown. There were no injuries reported, and worshippers quickly dispersed. Police blamed Arafat for the disturbance.
Israel's security Cabinet announced its decision in principle Thursday, two days after twin Palestinian homicide bombings killed 15 Israelis. In their statement, Israeli leaders declared Arafat "a complete obstacle" to peace and said "Israel will work to remove this obstacle in the manner, at the time, and in the ways that will be decided on separately."
That wording makes room for several options: deporting Arafat, capturing him or killing him. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that when Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz talked of killing Arafat during the Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked him not to use that term.
Some Israeli critics accused Sharon of making empty threats. "The bottom line is that they're not expelling Arafat," said Emannuel Rosen, diplomatic correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 TV. "This is a virtual game we're playing among ourselves — undignified, not serious."
Abroad, however, there was concern Israel might act and condemnation of the decision was widespread. France warned that expelling Arafat would be an error and the Arab League said Israel had in effect "declared war" on the peace process.
"It would be unwise to expel him," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.
Countries expressing concern ranged from Switzerland to Pakistan. Italy, Russia, Germany and Britain also voiced disapproval.
"We believe it would be a terrible mistake that would have serious consequences across the whole region," EU spokesman Diego Ojeda said.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said Powell told him in a phone call that the United States pressed Israel to call off any immediate move against Arafat. He said Powell also gave assurances that the United States would push Israel to meet key commitments of the stalled "road map" peace plan, in particular to withdraw forces from Palestinian cities and freeze settlement construction.
Mofaz, meanwhile, insisted Israel would act against Arafat. Speaking ahead of a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer — and with Kurtzer at his side — Mofaz said, "I am convinced the state of Israel has in the past made a historic mistake by not taking this decision earlier."
Israel believes Arafat is at least indirectly to blame for the attacks on Israeli civilians over the last three years of fighting and charges that he's done nothing with the security forces to stop them.
Israeli public opinion favors strong action. A poll in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot showed 60 percent of Israelis would like to see Arafat killed or exiled. The survey had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
The Israeli decision meant that Sharon and Mofaz could decide on expelling Arafat without reconvening the Cabinet. Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland confirmed there are operational plans to carry out an expulsion, saying in comments carried by Israel TV that "there can be several plans for different situations."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.