“The danger here concerns Israel’s determination to cancel the Palestinian partner and the Palestinian Authority,” Arafat told visiting diplomats at his battered headquarters in the West Bank city of Ram Allah.
The Israeli security cabinet made a decision on Thursday to “remove” Arafat “in a manner that will be determined separately”, provoking worldwide protests from governments and activists alike.
Arafat said the peace process was “facing the most critical time since the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993 … but I reaffirm before you that despite the incitement and Israeli threats, the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership are committed to the peace process.
“No one can deport me from my homeland, and the homeland of my fathers and forefathers,” Arafat, 74, said as thousands demonstrated for the third day running to show support for him both on his own doorstep and elsewhere in the occupied territories.
“It is the duty of all to … reach a comprehensive, just and permanent peace for the sake of our children and those of the Israelis”
Saturday was the 10th anniversary of Oslo’s signing, which Palestinians hailed as the first step to independence. Arafat’s co-signatory, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish extremist two years later.
“It is the duty of all to follow up on what our late partner Yitzhak Rabin did to… reach a comprehensive, just and permanent peace for the sake of our children and those of the Israelis,” Arafat said. “Come, let us make peace together.”
Earlier, Israel brushed aside a UN Security Council warning not to go through with its threat to exile Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, saying its national security is at stake.
In the face of overwhelming world opinion, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to press ahead with removing Arafat, the figurehead of Palestinian hopes for statehood.
The UN Security Council warned Israel on Friday against such a move. “Council members expressed the view that the removal of Mr Arafat would be unhelpful and should not be implemented,” Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry of Britain said.
Israel rejected the call. “With all due respect, Arafat is a master terrorist. We will not abjure our right to self-defence,” a source close to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said.
With US backing, Israel blames Arafat for fomenting violence in an almost three-year-old Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – a charge he denies.
But Washington does not want the 74-year-old ex-guerrilla leader exiled, fearing this would finish off a US-led “road map” to Middle East peace already in tatters following Israeli extrajudicial assassination attempts on Palestinian leaders in which many civilians died, and renewed Palestinian bombing attacks
Special forces stand by
Israeli special forces are trained to pluck Arafat from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ram Allah, where army blockades have kept him largely confined for the past 21 months, and whisk him to an unspecified location abroad.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz (R) suggested killing Arafat
The wording of Thursday’s security cabinet decision left open the option of assassinating Arafat – a proposal that Israeli newspapers said Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz raised but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vetoed.
Palestinians throughout the territories rallied in Arafat’s support and pledged to defend him with their lives. There were similar protests by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
“What the criminal decision made by the Israeli cabinet has done is really beyond all expectations. There is spontaneous support (for Arafat) by the Palestinian people,” Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Shaath said.
A number of Palestinians, particularly Fatah members, have set up tents around Arafat’s headquarters in Ram Allah, in an attempt to protect their leader from Israeli Forces, Aljazeera reported.
On Friday Israeli troops evacuated the buildings surrounding Arafat’s compound, which they had previously occupied, the channel’s correspondent said.
After Israel’s decision to exile Arafat, Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmad Quraya suspended efforts to form a cabinet. He was to take over from Mahmud Abbas who quit a week ago, accusing Arafat and Israel of undermining him.
Israeli forces, clashing with resistance fighters in the West Bank town of Nablus overnight killed an 80-year-old bystander, witnesses said.
Occupation military sources said troops sought to arrest a local guerrilla, but had no word on the dead bystander.
Also in the West Bank, occupation soldiers claimed to have discovered three bomb belts in a Bethlehem area butcher shop, Israeli security sources said.