"President Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinian people and the US and Israel must respect that", chief Palestinian negotiator, Saib Uraiqat told Aljazeera.net.

He was reacting to Bush's remarks to an Israeli journalist that "we must get rid of" Arafat.

Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported Sunday that Bush made the remarks after a keynote speech by Israeli premier Ariel Sharon on Thursday 18 December in which he outlined plans for unilateral disengagement from peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The US government has boycotted Arafat with Bush accusing the veteran leader of failing the Palestinian people. Israel has also shunned the 74-year old, confining him to his West Bank headquarters for more than two years.

Israel's security cabinet approved Arafat's "removal" in September. One minister suggested the leader could be assassinated.

Peace a priority

Uraiqat urged Bush to rather focus on "restoring the peace process and implementation of the road map". 

The Palestinian official went on to say that the US president should also focus on "stopping Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories, demolitions of homes, occupation of land and building of walls (a reference to the 650km concrete barrier that cuts deep into the West Bank)".

Peace activists outside Arafat's
battered Ram Allah headquarters

Palestinian NGOs were even more critical of Bush saying "any interference by the US and Israel to try to get rid of Arafat will be met with confrontation by the Palestinian people". 

"It is a dream of Bush that the Palestinian people behave as he wills", said Amir Makhul, Director of Ittijah, a Haifa-based network of Palestinian non-governmental organisations.

"But what is a surety, is that the spirit of the Palestinian people is stronger than Bush's plans. Bush can think what he wants", he said. 

"The issue for the Palestinian people is that Bush is not the decision-maker. He can act as a superpower, but his power is not valid for the Palestinian people".