The dramatic rhetoric was aimed directly at Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon less than 24 hours after Washington blocked an United Nations resolution urging Israel not to harm or kill him.

The United States’ use of its veto to kill the UN Security Council motion may encourage Israel to carry out its threat to assassinate Arafat.

However those fears were not evident on Wednesday when Arafat said: "Is there anyone in Palestine who does not dream of martyrdom? Is there any Palestinian who could not be martyred by daily shelling or missiles?"

Concerned

The Palestinian president said it was his people he feared for most.

“I’m only concerned for the Palestinians,” he told Aljazeera on Wednesday, sitting in his battered office in the West Bank town of Ram Allah. 

"Is there anyone in Palestine who does not dream of martyrdom?"

Yasir Arafat

“There is no doubt the US veto and the (subsequent) international silence have given Israel a green light to continue its daily aggressions against our people, villages, camps, cities, and sacred Muslim and Christian places.”

Dressed in his customary black and white headdress and olive-green army fatigues, the 74-year-old veteran resistance leader acknowledged the huge daily demonstrations of popular support he had received since Israel controversially declared a week ago it would “remove” him.

“There is still a section of my nation who have stuck to their faith, who do not fear their enemy, and they will, with the spirit of God, be victorious,” he said.

International outcry

At the weekend, the Israeli deputy prime minister revealed he and his colleagues were considering assassinating Arafat because, somewhat ironically, it saw him as an obstacle to peace and a terrorist. 

The revelation sparked an international outcry and led Arab states to press the UN to pass a resolution demanding Israel neither harm nor expel Arafat. The motion, sponsored by Syria, also condemned acts of violence against civilians on both the Palestinian and Israeli side.

US envoy John Negroponte blocks
the UN motion defending Arafat

But envoy John Negroponte used US powers as a permanent member of the Security Council to block the motion, saying it was flawed because it did not specifically name armed Palestinian groups.

Palestinian officials said they feared the veto would be seen by Israeli leaders as a “licence to kill Arafat”.

But the Palestinian president was dismissive of the US veto, noting the resolution was almost universally supported.

“How many times has America used its veto? We're not concerned by it,” he said. “We only need to look at the Arab, the (wider) international, non-aligned, Muslim, the European, and African positions.”

As a result of that wider support, the Palestinian leader, trapped in his damaged Ram Allah headquarters for 21 months and encircled by Israeli troops and tanks, said his spirits remained high.

“Palestinians, the Arab nations, free and honourable people all over the world are with me,” he said, “What an honour that is.”

Pressure

But despite that bravado, Arafat is under intense pressure. With the effective collapse of peace negotiations and apparent US reluctance to restrain its ally Israel, Arafat faces an Israeli government led by a prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who has tried to kill him before.

Sitting in the ruins of his compound, however, the ageing resistance leader shrugged off the prospect of death.

“It’s not the first time. They tried to assassinate me in Tunisia and Lebanon and other places,” Arafat told Aljazeera. “Sharon has to admit he tried 17 assassination attempts in Beirut.”

Palestinian children hold up a
picture of Arafat near his offices

He similarly dismissed the news that Israel had placed a number of commando troops on standy to take action against him.

“We don’t care about such measures,” he added. “We’re mujahdin. All of us are (ready) to be martyred for the sake of our sacred land.”

Arafat said a new Palestinian cabinet under prime minister nominee Ahmad Quraya would be announced next week. He has also declared his willingness to revive US-sponsored peace efforts, insisting he could impose a ceasefire on Palestinian resistance fighters if Israel ceased its attacks.

But although he was ready to offer an olive-branch, Arafat told reporters on Wednesday he was also prepared for the worst.

“I’m a Palestinian soldier … I will use my gun to defend not only myself but also defend every Palestinian child, woman and man and to defend Palestinian existence,” Arafat told one journalist as he pointed to his machine gun.