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Palestinians Protest in Ramallah for Arafat's Freedom of Movement - 2002-02-07


As Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon prepares to meet President George Bush in Washington, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains confined to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah. Mr. Sharon says that the Palestinian leader cannot travel until he arrests those responsible for the assassination of an Israel's tourism minister in October.

At the end of a road leading out from Ramallah's busy commercial center, black smoke billows across the sky, from burning tires.

The smoke is the first sign that one is nearing Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters, a fortress-like compound of buildings. Armed security forces keep watch from behind iron gates and high cement walls.

For weeks now, when the guards look out, they can see a row of Israeli tanks massed outside the building. And just beyond the tanks, a group of Palestinian youths armed with slingshots are firing rocks at the tanks. It is the youths who are responsible for the fires. They have set them so they stay warm as they send volleys of rocks against the forces that are keeping Mr. Arafat confined in his headquarters.

The youths flee as tear gas is fired back at them by the Israeli soldiers, and huddle inside a bus shelter, where they have raised the Palestinian flag in defiance of the military siege that has been laid at the door of their leader.

"Allah Akhbar (God is Great)," the youths shout, chant songs and clap to keep up their spirits in the chilly winter air.

Further down the road, at a safer distance from the confrontation line, a group of Palestinian artists from Jerusalem have set up a protest tent, among them Suleiman Mansour. He says the Israelis are accomplishing nothing by making Mr. Arafat a prisoner.

"The conflict is with the Palestinian people, it is not with Yasser Arafat, and creating a conflict with him personally is another way of creating a problem with the Palestinian people," Suleiman Mansour said.

He says that there will only be peace between Israelis and Palestinians when Israel realizes that it must end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the areas it seized during the 1967 Middle East war.

"They (the Israelis) have been occupying us for the last 35 years and they just want an excuse to just keep occupying this land," Suleiman Mansour said.

None of the Palestinians believe Mr. Arafat is in any danger. Israeli soldiers, they say, will not be given the order to fire at the compound and kill Mr. Arafat.

But the Palestinians say the Israelis have no reservations about humiliating Mr. Arafat. And Mr. Mansour says, since Mr. Arafat is a symbol of the Palestinian people, what the Israelis do to him, they are doing to all Palestinians.

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