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Mike Williams Interview with Yasser Arafat


by our Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Mike Williams
Yasser Arafat seems to shrink and grow through the day. At times he looks small and old, ill and fragile. But when he is greeting the faithful or denouncing Israel, he seems much larger and it is easier to see the fearsome revolutionary.

In 1994, in a speech to the United Nations, Yasser Arafat waved a leafy branch above his head: "I come bearing an olive branch in one hand" he said. Then he pulled out his pistol: "….and the freedom fighter's gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand". I went to Ramallah this week to find out if he still had a grip on that branch.

Mr Arafat (the Israelis call him Chairman Arafat, the Palestinians call him President) does not give many interviews but it is easier to pin him down now that the Israeli military has, effectively, put him under house arrest. The blue and white flag bearing the Star of David flies above a requisitioned apartment block across the road from the Palestinian leader's compound. Snipers and surveillance officers from the Israeli defence force have taken up residence there and three tanks discourage Mr Arafat from moving. His helicopter pad is quiet and empty since the "presidential" fleet was blown up on the ground in Gaza.

I spent a few days in Ramallah, begging, cajoling, boasting, phoning and faxing. Trying to find a way into the inner sanctum. Late on Wednesday the call came. "A car will meet you outside. Come quickly, the President is very busy". After more hours of waiting in smoky rooms decorated with pictures of the Al-Aqsa mosque in the disputed centre of Jerusalem, I was invited for dinner with The Man.

About 20 of us sat around the table. Straight across from me I watched an old, tired man, eating what little his doctors will allow him. He grew smaller.

Eventually the conversation stuttered into life. It was a dialogue punctuated with embarrassed silences. He handed out delicacies from the plates around him, offering his guests fruit and cake and a dip of their bread into a plate of what looked like tar from a building gang.

Mercifully the meal was over soon - it was approaching midnight and Mr Arafat had more meetings ahead of him. There was another wait in another smoky room before I was called into his office. A group of Chinese men and women were just having their picture taken with the Chairman/President and handing over an ornate vase which his aides perched precariously on top of a bookcase.

He is a courteous man, patting the chair next to him in a rare invitation to come close.

Then he grew larger. As we spoke about the diplomatic roles of Britain, America, Europe and Arabia, the power returned to his voice and his face. He can hold an unblinking stare while he searches for the English words to express his rage and frustration at the plight of his people. He veers from calm statesman to angry revolutionary.

He grips your arm to make sure you understand the importance of one point or another. He shouts about the injustices he sees done to the Palestinians then reaches into his pocket to pull out cough drops to soothe my throat. It's disconcerting to be halfway through a question on his relationship with Israel's Prime Minister then find him surreptitiously pressing honey lozenges into the hand without the microphone.

Terrorist? Freedom fighter? It is not my place to say. He is certainly a man committed to his cause. He is certainly weakened by age and illness. He certainly is invigorated by political debate - you can almost see his mind at work as he quotes verbatim from UN resolutions and from the articles of one failed peace treaty or another.

Close up it is very difficult though, to see him as the Israeli Prime Minister does as irrelevant.


Mike Williams interviewing Yasser Arafat
Listen - Mike Williams interviews Yasser Arafat (7/2/2002)
Yasser Arafat in Ramallah
US Justice Department
Israeli tank patrolling the West bank
Yasser Arafat.
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