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Palestinian Leader Arafat may be Forced into Exile, says Israeli Defense Minister - 2003-09-02

Israel's defense minister says Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat needs to go and may be forced into exile before the end of the year.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Army Radio that Israel had made what he termed a historic mistake in not expelling Yasser Arafat two years ago. Mr. Mofaz said it's clear that the Palestinian leader was never interested in making peace and therefore needs to go. He added that Israel may have to decide soon whether to expel Mr. Arafat.

Israel has kept the Palestinian leader confined to his largely demolished compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for most of the past two years. At times he was surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks, at other times he remained out of fear that if he were to leave, Israel would not allow him back.

While some Israelis, like Mr. Mofaz, want Yasser Arafat forced into exile, others have cautioned that such a move would bring about harsh international criticism.

Mr. Mofaz's comments Tuesday come amid a power struggle within the Palestinian Authority - between Yasser Arafat and his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who is increasingly unpopular at home, but has the support of Israel and the United States.

Yasser Arafat denies American and Israeli accusations that he supports violence and does not seriously back the road map for peace. The Palestinian leader has refused to cede full control of the Palestinian security forces to Mr. Abbas. That presents a major hurdle for the Prime Minister who is supposed to rein in and dismantle militant organizations that continue to carry out attacks against Israelis.

Palestinian officials have been meeting to try to resolve the dispute between the two men, with little success thus far.

Palestinian cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib said Mr. Mofaz's comments only increase tension.

And, in the meantime the violence continues. The Israeli military says a Palestinian man was shot and killed at a West Bank checkpoint after he drew a gun on soldiers there. In Gaza City, a teenage girl died of wounds she received in an Israeli missile attack last week.

Israel has carried out six missile strikes against leading members of the militant group Hamas in the past several weeks. The latest attack was on Monday, when helicopter gun ships killed two Hamas militants and seriously injured a third.

The Israeli security service, Shin Beit, has said it's stepping up efforts to protect government ministers after threats by Hamas that it would seek revenge for Israel's assassination of a number of senior Hamas figures.