Arafat difficult to pin down

On September 11, the Israeli cabinet threatened to “remove” Yasser Arafat, the President of the Palestinian Authority. Avi Dichyer, chief of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, advocates Arafat’s death rather than his exile. Ehud Olmert, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister, conceded assassination was an option.

This week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon backed off under American and European pressure. Still, Arafat finds himself the focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, again.

Assassination has long been a popular Israeli policy when it comes to Arafat and militants within his Fatah organization. The Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, carried out a series of assassinations during the 1970s and ’80s, killing 11 members of the Black September group, responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. Arafat was included on its hit list. He survived but several of his deputies did not.

When Israel invaded Lebanon (the Palestine Liberation Organization’s operational harbour at the time) in 1982, the Israeli Armed Forces, commanded by Sharon, executed repeated air attacks against buildings where Arafat was thought to be hiding.

On one occasion, the attack came as Arafat worked late in his office in a 14-story Beirut office tower. An aide advised him an Italian diplomat wanted to see him. Sensing danger, Arafat moved across the street immediately.

At 2:05 a.m., the building he evacuated was leveled. In a January 2002 interview with the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Sharon regretted Israel didn’t kill Arafat in Beirut when it had the chance.

In the wake of the murder of three middle-aged Israeli tourists on a yacht in Larnaca, Cyprus on Yom Kippur, Sept. 25, 1985, the Israelis launched an ambitious strike against Arafat and Fatah. Israeli F-15 fighter jets bombed the PLO headquarters at Hammam ash-Shatt, southeast of Tunis, a week later on Oct. 1. The attack failed to kill Arafat, who was out for a jog, but at least 15 civilians were killed, along with 60 PLO members (according to Israeli figures).

Within the current Israeli intelligence administration, an operative plan to topple Arafat has existed since 1996 (known internally as "Field of Thorns") and was updated in 2000 as the second intifada began.

Arafat has also found himself the target of assassination attempts by two of his Arab allies. Jordan and Syria were both states where he landed his "revolution on a flying carpet" in the late 1960s. In both cases, he wore out his welcome.

In the summer of 1969, Arafat’s relationship with King Hussein of Jordan soured. The presence of the fedayeen inside Jordan, where they launched attacks into nearby Israel, became disruptive and destabilized the Jordanian regime. Voices inside Fatah began to suggest that the PLO topple King Hussein and occupy the Jordanian kingdom which had a 60 per cent Palestinian majority at the time. Arafat was the subsequent target of an unsuccessful Jordanian mail bomb.

In mid-September of that year, King Hussein declared war on the PLO. In Amman, Jordanian tanks searched for fedayeen commanders. Arafat in particular was a target. A special squad from the Jordanian Armed Forces was assigned to capture him. He escaped, disguised as a Kuwaiti diplomat.

Syria, another one time PLO harbour, tried to assassinate him in 1969. Damascus, supporting a breakaway splinter of the Fatah organization, coordinated an ambush of Arafat’s convoy. Warned hours earlier, Arafat was not in his tinted, bullet-proof limousine when the Syrians attacked. In the shoot-out, one of his bodyguards was killed, and nine others were wounded by machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades. The next morning, he was given six hours to leave Syria.

Arafat also ducked death on several other occasions.

In April 1992, his private jet, borrowed from Muammar Qadaffi, crashed in a ferocious sandstorm near al-Khufrah in the Libyan desert. The pilot and the flight attendant were both killed. For 15 hours, Arafat bled into the desert sand.

Arafat also has a famous passion for fast cars–which he attributes to a fear of Israeli helicopter attacks. He has been involved in several serious car crashes, the most serious occurring in January 1969. On the highway between Damascus and Baghdad, he passed a truck at 85 MPH and sped headlong into oncoming traffic. He slammed on the brakes and skidded under the truck, escaping with a broken wrist and several days of memory loss.

Arafat has become a legendary escaper of death among Palestinians. Dozens of other PLO leaders have been murdered, but he has survived.

In 1988, the Israelis assassinated his lieutenant, Abu Jihad. They filled his body with 75 bullets. Fifteen years later and Arafat is still alive.

By his own count, he has survived over 50 assassination attempts. Many of his aides and colleagues attribute his survival to his nose for danger, or his "dog’s sense" as he calls it.

He is indeed an elusive character. He is an ugly man. He never appears in public without a chequered kaffiyeh covering his bald head. He works 18-hour days, seven days a week. He does not smoke or drink. His only indulgence is a taste for honey (he keeps a jar on his desk) and tea. He cannot keep still.

The elusive Arafat may soon be called upon to elude death one more time. The smart money says he will.

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