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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Offensive Revives Arafat's Stature

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has shunned him and openly suggested he be sent into exile. U.S. President George W. Bush repeatedly has blamed him for the bloody impasse that has left him bottled up in Ramallah.

But Palestinians consulted in a series of interviews, including those who used to complain bitterly about his leadership, have closed ranks behind Yasser Arafat as rarely before since Israel's offensive in the West Bank began 11 days ago. It has been a long time since Arafat's stature was so high among his followers.

Some Palestinians have voiced suspicion that the Bush administration is laying the groundwork for an attempt to find new Palestinian leadership. But if Bush wants to find someone else to talk to about a cease-fire or any other Palestinian-Israeli issue, they said, he will find nobody home.

"Now more than ever, the address is Arafat," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a Palestinian political activist. "The irony of Arafat's isolation is that in these conditions, no one would dare try to fill his role even if they had a mind to."

Arafat, 72, is enduring his 12th day in the ruins of his headquarters in Ramallah. He spends his days telephoning Arab leaders to ensure he enjoys support abroad, said Saeb Erekat, an adviser who maintains frequent contact with the leader.

U.S. officials have repeated that Arafat is still thought of in Washington as the Palestinian leader. But inconsistent treatment has made Palestinians wary. During a diplomatic mission to the Middle East last month, for instance, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney refused to speak with him. But the U.S. special envoy, Anthony Zinni, visited him for 90 minutes last week inside the besieged compound.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is barnstorming the region this week, said Sunday he might meet with Arafat if "circumstances" allow.

Abdullah Hourani, a social scientist in Gaza, said he suspects Powell might meet with Arafat but will try to include others to boost their stature. "I think the U.S. and Israel want to exclude him," Hourani said.

Even before Powell's visit, no one wanted to appear to be standing in for Arafat. No top Palestinian leaders except Erekat and Yasser Abed Rabbo, an adviser and spokesman, have made public statements about anything having to do with negotiations. The caution is for fear of being regarded as a traitor.

Mahmoud Abbas, the second in command of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, refused to speak to a reporter in Ramallah on Monday because, he explained, "Arafat speaks for us all." Arafat has designated Abbas, known by his nickname Abu Mazin, as his successor in the PLO if he dies.

Workaday Palestinians have reacted to his incarceration by throwing their support to him unconditionally. It is a major shift. Even deep into the 18-month-old uprising against continued Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Palestinians openly criticized Arafat for mismanagement of talks with Israel, for his dictatorial ways and for official corruption. Since the Israeli offensive in the West Bank began March 29, all that has changed.

In Gaza, 6,000 demonstrators held a pro-Arafat march Monday. Many paraded under the banners of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, two dissident Muslim organizations that include terrorism in their resistance arsenal. Members of both groups normally have nothing good to say about Arafat.

Arafat selected his successors two months ago. Besides Abu Mazin for the PLO, he designated Ahmed Qureia, whose nickname is Abu Ala, to head the Palestinian Authority, which until the Israeli invasion administered 18 percent of the West Bank and about two-thirds of the Gaza Strip.