Arafat Interviewed Inside
Compound - Spirits Said 'Very High'

By David Ratner and Haim Shadmi
Ha'aretz Daily Correspondents
Ha'aretz Service and Agencies

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) - Israeli forces imposed a curfew Sunday on the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters have been under siege for three days. Arafat has been confined to a two-room office, with Israeli tanks and troops just outside.

CNN Correspondent Michael Holmes gained access to the compound Sunday and was able to speak briefly with Arafat.

HOLMES: I've actually just left Yasser Arafat. We couldn't get a telephone signal out of there. I can tell you that he is fit, uninjured and certainly defiant.

An extraordinary scene here; we're outside the walls and about 40 or 50 Palestinian and international peace protesters, including Americans, French, Germans and Swiss, marched down the street to one of the entranceways into the compound, walked straight past some armored personnel carriers and tanks, and walked straight toward Yasser Arafat's compound.
We followed, and as we did, Israeli troops fired warning shots. The group did not stop. They marched straight in, past Palestinian gunmen at the entrance to Yasser Arafat's office building, walked straight past the Palestinian gunmen who seemed shocked and surprised and not a little pleased to see everybody.

We went upstairs; we saw Yasser Arafat. They said no interviews, but we did ask him questions anyway. He said that he's staying where he is. He said he feels that his life is at risk but he is not concerned about that. He said, in as many words, he doesn't care if he dies.

He said, "This is about my people." He has called on the international community once again -- the European Union, the United States -- to step in and stop the siege that is under way at his headquarters.

CNN: Is Yasser Arafat planning on -- first of all, is his cell phone working? There were mixed reports on whether he had a line to get out of that compound.

HOLMES: Cell phone contact is very patchy at the moment in this area. I was in there obviously trying to call to tell you what was happening, and I could not get a call out. It's very difficult at the moment. He cannot get a signal out. I spoke to several of his aides who also have cell phones -- they cannot get a signal out either.

He is certainly defiant, and he has many armed security force people with him. They have AK-47s; there were a couple of heavy-caliber machine guns. They too are defiant.

CNN: Did you have a chance to discuss with him about making a statement? President Bush is asking for him to condemn this violence, these attacks that are taking place, in Arabic. Did he say anything about that, anything at all about making any type of statement condemning this violence?

HOLMES: It was a pretty confusing and impromptu news conference, certainly the most extraordinary I've seen in some 25 years of reporting. I kept trying to get him to talk in English, and a couple of other journalists who came in with us were trying to get him to talk in Arabic.

Yasser Arafat has said in the past he has already made those statements. He has condemned bombings. He says that he has done everything he possibly can to stop the bombings.

Israel, of course, has a very different viewpoint. He says that he has already made those statements. He's calling for peace; he's calling for the full implementation once again of the Tenet peace plan.

I asked him if he thought a cease-fire was possible given the circumstances that he is in and has been in for a couple of days now. He said, "Of course, of course, under Tenet." He's still willing, he says, to talk peace, to talk cease-fire through [U.S. Middle East envoy] Gen. Anthony Zinni.

CNN: What's his next move? What does he plan to do? What did he tell you? Is he just going to wait this out? Is he being advised by anybody? Is he strictly making these decisions himself?

HOLMES: No, he is surrounded by senior advisers. There were 10 or so of them with him just now. From his point of view, and from the Palestinian point of view, it's not up to him how to end this. He said he is the one under siege. He said the Palestinian people are the ones who are occupied, and there's not much he can do from inside his office, surrounded by tanks and troops.

There are snipers in the building opposite. They were firing warning shots at us as we went in, and there were a couple of stragglers from the media who tried to join up with the group later. They had shots fired at their feet. So [Arafat] says that he's not in a position, given that sort of environment, in which to do very much at all -- other than to call for peace and call for a pullback of these troops that are in his compound.

He's stuck there; he can't get calls out. It's not a very pleasant situation in there, in the building. There's a lot of people in there in not very many rooms. I saw a mattress on the floor. We walked in, and the first thing the soldiers there asked for were cigarettes. They're certainly running short of supplies, but I certainly can say that their spirits seem very high.

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