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Veteran Middle East correspondent David Hirst was recently the first journalist to be granted an interview with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat since the intifada began.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat often describes his struggle as a “long march” to the “spires and minarets” of Jerusalem, capital of his Palestinian state-to-be. “And I hope that the next time you see me,” he said, “I will be in my mother’s house.” It was next to the Wailing Wall, he explained, and it had only been partially destroyed when the Israelis demolished the ancient Mograbi quarter immediately after their conquest of East Jerusalem in 1967.

Here in Ramallah, he is as physically close to his goal as he can get, a mere 10 minutes by car, but whether politically this really is his last way-station on the road to Jerusalem depends on the outcome of the intifada. At the moment, like all the town’s inhabitants, he is under siege.

He received me in the Muqata’a, the “district headquarters” from which the British, Jordanians and Israelis had formerly administered the town. The night before it had come under fire, just another of those now almost banal intrusions of warfare into lives that otherwise have many outward aspects of normality. Ramallah is beset by Israeli settlements. The exchanges between them and the Palestinian Shabiba, or youth, has taken on a routine pattern. Sometimes it is the Shabiba who start them, with the ineffectual Kalashnikovs that are the only weapons they possess, sometimes the settlers or Israeli Army, with much heavier weapons, including tanks.

On this occasion, locals said, it was the latter. From the settlement of Psagot, quite out of the blue, they shot and wounded a 12-year-old boy playing in a schoolyard a mere 300 meters away. The Muqata’a, said an Arafat aide, was hit several times by an Israeli machinegun.

Intensifying the sense of siege for Arafat are the hazards and difficulty of movement. His private helicopter has been grounded. It was former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, not Ariel Sharon, who deprived him of it when, Arafat explained, “he pushed his forces into our towns and cities on the 28th of September.” Now he has to rely on a Jordanian helicopter. And simply to get to Gaza, the other segment of his domain now almost entirely cut off from the West Bank, he has to go first to Amman, take a flight to El Arish, and then go by road through dangerous, settler-infested territory to his local headquarters.

I first met the “president,” as he now styles himself, in Jordan in 1968 shortly after his guerrilla movement had emerged in an aura of heroism and great expectations from the clandestineness that both Israel and hostile Arab governments had imposed on it. At the time, as the mere “spokesman” of the collectively led Fatah organization, his rhetoric was fiery and his objectives uncompromising: the “complete liberation” of Palestine by “armed struggle” alone.

It was owing to this long association that he agreed to be interviewed. He began with the paradoxical assertion that “I am not giving interviews.” So what was this, then? “Just a chat.”

Furthermore, I observed, he hardly ever addresses his people. This seemed rather curious for a leader engaged in what many of his people clearly think is the climax of a long struggle, demonstrating, as they often do, under the slogan “this is the last time.”

“Yes,” he conceded, “I speak little,” and turning to his chef de Cabinet, Ahmad Abdul Rahman, he said: “I leave it to my mass media experts, they are better at it than me.”

These things were humorously said, for he was in a buoyant mood, confident, some of his entourage say, that he is at least holding his own in the great trial of strength and stamina now under way. He must also know that, though still heavily criticized for the manifold flaws of his administration, he has regained much popularity, both here and in the Arab world at large, simply for standing firm as the leader of a patriotic struggle.

He is also, he says, in very good health. Even as long ago as his last two great sieges — in Beirut in 1982 against Israel and in Tripoli in 1983 against Syria — he was known to his followers as the “khityar,” or “old man.” Now, at 72, the khityar shows his age. But there is no sign of mental decay, and even the celebrated trembling lips — apparently not the symptom of any serious condition — now tremble less than they used to.

This taciturnity is widely interpreted as the deliberate strategy that it clearly is. Arafat just doesn’t want to elaborate on the nature of the intifada. Is it violent — violence being banned under Oslo — or non-violent? Armed struggle or peaceable mass action? Spontaneous or subject to his control and manipulation? Confined to the occupied territories or deliberately exported to Israeli proper? Clearly, it contains all these elements. But you will be hard-pressed to get him to explain his part in them. It is not his business, he insists, but Israel’s, for it was Sharon who started it all.

He had been so alarmed, Arafat said, at the rightwing leader’s plan last September to visit the Aqsa compound that he visited Barak the night before to warn him of the likely consequences.

“Unfortunately, he did not follow my advice. You know what happened the next day: They opened fire on those who were praying. That is what made the intifada,” Arafat said.

“So would the intifada go on?” I asked.

“Before asking me, you must ask the Israelis whether they will go on with their military escalation,” Arafat answered.

“But they accuse you of going back to armed struggle?”

“It seems,” he replied with heavy irony, “that it is I who send helicopters, tanks, and armored cars to seal all Israeli cities . . . Is it I who use uranium and gas bombs? I who close the passages to Jordan and Gaza? We have funerals every day. Who can control a people who have funerals everyday? But till now,” he insisted, “I have not given any order to open fire. And they know that. Our policemen and soldiers have not been involved till now.”

“So it was individual, spontaneous acts?” I asked.

“Mainly. And self-defense against the settlers,” he replied.

It reminded him, despite the much lesser scale and intensity of the fighting, of the 1982 siege of Beirut — except that in Beirut, “we didn’t have these settlers, who commit their crimes under the control and protection of the Israeli Army. Attacking our towns and villages and uprooting trees, including even olive trees that go back to Roman times.”

“So if they stopped causing funerals every day, you could tell your people to stop?” I asked.

“Definitely. But they also have to follow up the agreement.”

That is to say, to return to the peace process where it had been left off, not at last July’s Camp David summit but at the Taba talks held on the eve of the Israeli elections.

At those, Arafat said, the two sides had come closer than ever to an agreement. He repudiated the Israelis’ contention that it was he who had caused the peace process to collapse by rejecting “the most generous offer” Israel ever made, an offer measured — in its strictly territorial dimension — as 96 percent, or thereabouts, of the occupied territories.

If there was a generous offer, Arafat said, it was not the Israelis’ but the Palestinians’, with their renunciation of 78 percent of their original homeland.

But “some of their leaders refuse to understand just what the Palestinians offered — for history and the whole region’s history.”

Nonetheless, at Taba the Israelis yielded far more than ever before. “For first time they agreed to give up 80 percent of the settlements. For those along the frontier that would not be removed, there would be a land swap,” said Arafat.

But could he now make any headway with a man like Sharon, whose officially stated idea of territorial compromise is that the Palestinians should be content with 42 percent of their 22 percent, who refuses to shake hands with a “liar and a murderer,” and who — said Arafat himself — had tried to assassinate him 13 times during the siege of Beirut alone?

His aides think not. But Arafat is conciliatory discretion itself: “I respect anyone the Israelis elect, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak and now Sharon.” Besides, “I don’t think he will try to kill me; he is now the first man in Israel — and I have a hotline to him.”

“A hotline?”

“Yes, Omri is my hotline,” he said, referring to Sharon’s son, now becoming a regular visitor to the Muqata’a.

“It would seem from such methods of communication that you are ‘Arabizing’ the Israelis?” I commented.

“But they are Arabs,” Arafat shot back, calculating that 70 percent of them are of Middle East origin.

And the fact was that Sharon was beginning to falter. That is the interpretation that he and his aides put on a recent, inglorious operation in Gaza. The Israeli Army had been obliged to beat a swift retreat from its punitive foray into Area A, that portion of the occupied territories, still very small, over which the Palestine Authority has exclusive control, as distinct from Area B, where it has joint control, and Area C, where Israel remains in sole charge.

The “very important” thing here, Arafat said, was that U.S. President George W. Bush and the Europeans told Sharon to stop.

“So you believe that international intervention is indispensable?” I asked.

“This is what happened all over the world, in Bosnia, in Kosovo,” Arafat replied.

“Some Israelis believe that you will do anything, even engineer another massacre, another Sabra and Shatila, to bring that about.”

“It has been done already — 25,000 people wounded. And what about all that destruction to houses, installations, schools, mosques and churches? Even the synagogue of the Samaritans in Nablus has been bombed,” Arafat said.

“Was it not possible, if things got worse, that, instead of completing your ‘long march’ to Jerusalem, you would be captured and put on a plane to Tunis, your former headquarters in exile, as some Israelis were urging?” I asked.

“I will return. I have my ways, you know. I always used to come here secretly. This is my land. Here I shall die.”

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