By Ewen MacAskill in Ramallah, The Guardian, June 30, 2001
The Palestinian Authority president, Yasser Arafat, has made it clear that he will
not distance himself from the Palestinian extremist groups Hamas and Islamic
Jihad, both of which have been responsible for suicide bombings in Israel.
The Israeli government insists that, as part of the move towards resuming
peace talks, Mr Arafat must order the Palestinian police authority to arrest
members of the two groups.
But Mr Arafat said: “I am not looking for Hamas or for Islamic Jihad or any
other parties, because we respect all these parties and there is a union
between all of us.”
His attitude will incense the Israeli public, angered by the suicide bombing at
the Dolphinarium discotheque on June 1, which killed 21 Israelis. Islamic Jihad
and Hamas both claimed responsibility.
Mr Arafat declared his position at a press conference given jointly late on
Thursday night with the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, his first with the
international press corps since he returned from exile in Tunis in 1994.
He is normally vague about his relationship with Islamic Jihad and
Hamas, but Palestinian support for both groups is growing, and he cannot
He outraged Israel in October when, just after the intifada began, he freed
Hamas and Islamic Jihad members from jail.
Asked by journalists why the Palestinian police were not looking for
those responsible for murder, he said: “Are there any Israelis who have killed
Palestinians who are in Israeli jails now?”
But in a gesture towards the ceasefire brought about by the US a
fortnight ago, he said that anyone planning future attacks would be
“apprehended, questioned and incarcerated”.
Asked for his view of the murder earlier in the day of a Jewish woman
settler, Ekaterina Weintraub, 24, he said:
“I appreciate your concern, but I would like also to see as much concern
for the great number of Palestinians killed and injured daily.”
He said he had asked his security chief, Jibril Rajoub, to try to catch
those responsible for her death.
Mr Arafat was speaking in his spartan presidential palace in Ramallah, on
the West Bank, and his aides describes the occasion as a chat rather than
a press conference.
He was in a cheerful, boisterous mood, after his meeting earlier with the
Mr Powell. He thanked Mr Powell, who ended his brief Middle East visit
yesterday, for giving a nod in favour of the Palestinian demand for an
observer force in the West Bank and Gaza.
Mr Arafat, who is 72, appeared to be in good health. The quivering lip which
some observers thought suggested a serious illness has gone.
After a short tirade in which he accused Israel of reneging on the Oslo
agreement by refusing to curb the expansion of Jewish settlements, he
railed against the Jewish settlers and Israeli army for destroying olive
trees dating back to Roman times and asked what other country in the world
had ever waged war in such a way. Waving a finger, he asked each journalist in
turn to name one. A correspondent volunteered the British destruction of crops
in the fight against the Mau-Mau in Kenya in the 1950s.
Mr Arafat said: “Olive trees? They were olive trees?” To laughter, the
reporter conceded they had been coffee crops. Mr Arafat, looking pleased
with himself, said: “Did he forget he was speaking to Yasser Arafat?” It
was a boast he was to repeat several times.
There was a more abrasive response when the Washington Post asked what
advice he would give to a young man who approached him saying he wanted to
be a suicide bomber, Mr Arafat replied coldly:
“You should ask Sheikh Ahmed Yassin [the Hamas founder], not me.”
Mr Arafat, who has taken the Palestinian cause a long way from his days as a
Cairo student in the 1950s, was touchy about questions challenging his failure
so far to create a Palestinian state.
“For your information, the number of countries who are recognising a
Palestinian state are more than those who recognise Israel,” he declared.
Although the Israeli prime minister described him earlier this week as the
“head of a terrorist gang”, Mr Arafat insisted that Mr Sharon could still
be a partner in peace. In 1998 Mr Sharon, then foreign minister, refused to
shake hands with him, but signed the Wye river peace accords.
“It is not important to shake hands with me,” Mr Arafat said. “What is
important is that he signed beside me.”
Mr Arafat said all the Palestinians were asking for was that Israel should
implement agreements it had already signed. “We are not asking for the
moon,” he said.