RAMALLAH, West Bank With many Israelis calling for his ouster and warplanes bombing the symbols of his power, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat insisted Saturday that he will not shy away from a confrontation with the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups to revive what hope remains for peace in the region.
In an interview with The Associated Press in his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Arafat said the Palestinian police have already arrested 17 key militants out of a list of 33 presented to him by American officials, and said he will continue pursuing the rest despite the continuing Israeli airstrikes.
Asked whether he would be prepared to face down resistance by the militants and their growing legions of supporters, Arafat smiled and said: "You are speaking with Yasser Arafat. I know how to do it. I know how to do it."
Earlier in the week, Palestinian police faced an angry mob outside the home of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin after he had been placed under house arrest, and a Hamas supporter was killed in an exchange of fire.
Arafat was interviewed for an hour in his office in an imposing compound that once served as an Israeli military prison. It was just yards away from the scene of an Israeli missile strike earlier in the week that was widely interpreted as a message that the Palestinian leader was no longer fully immune.
Dressed in olive fatigues and trademark keffiyeh headdress meticulously arranged to approximate the shape of historic Palestine, Arafat carried his own message largely aimed at America: attached to his lapels were tiny Palestinian and American flags, an olive branch and a pin depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.
Arafat said he was used to coming under Israeli attack, citing Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in which Ariel Sharon then defense minister and now Israel's prime minister drove Arafat and his fighters to exile in faraway Tunisia.
"Do you think it is the first time he (Sharon) had done it?" Arafat said, referring to this week's rocket attack. "You have to remember Beirut."
The Palestinian leader has been under mounting pressure by the United States and other nations to crush the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements that have been waging a campaign of terror in Israel, especially after Hamas suicide bombings a week ago killed 26 people in Jerusalem and the coastal city of Haifa.
The attacks, within 12 hours of each other less than a week into the peace mission of retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, badly rattled Israel.
They were the first suicide bombings since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States the previous one was about several days before those attacks.
Sharon placed the blame squarely on Arafat, and said that by doing little to quash the radical groups up to now Arafat bore the blame for their actions. The message resonated widely in Israel and appears to have found support in the Bush administration as well.
U.S. attitude shifts
U.S. officials have termed Israeli airstrikes in reprisal for the bombings self-defense, in contrast to the U.S. criticism of previous Israeli military actions, including incursions into Palestinian territory and targeted killings of suspected militants.
Asked whether the United States has given the Palestinians guarantees that Israeli airstrikes would stop while the arrests are being carried out, Arafat said: "They (the American envoys) said they will do their best. But the Israelis are not listening to anybody until now."
Arafat said he hoped the United States would take a firmer position with Sharon, and bar Israel from using American-made weapons in strikes against the Palestinians. In recent air raids, Israel used U.S.-made F-15 and F-16 fighter planes.
"I am looking for them (the Americans) to make more pressure," Arafat said, adding that he hoped for the United States "not to let them (use) these American weapons against us."
Israel has dismissed Arafat's campaign against the militants as insufficient, saying that key masterminds of terror were still at large. The Palestinians say that in all, they have rounded up about 180 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad but Israel says many of these are minor activists.
The trust in Arafat is so low that right-wing Cabinet ministers and others, including former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, are openly calling for Arafat to be removed from power once a position of only the most radical extremists. Billboards went up throughout Israel this week saying, "Expel Arafat. Return hope."
In a poll in the Maariv newspaper, 56 percent said Israel should try to remove Arafat from power, with only 34 percent opposed. A smaller majority 51 to 42 percent favored destroying the Palestinian Authority.
Arafat was evasive when asked repeatedly whether he believed Israel's government was trying to force him out of office. He said the Israeli military strikes were aimed at extracting concessions from the Palestinians: "They want to squeeze the Palestinian people, to let them kneel and to accept their orders and to accept their plan."
Arafat said he was ready to return to peace talks immediately, saying a peace deal was vital not only for his people, but also for the Israelis.
Last year, then-premier Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state in the Gaza Strip and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with a foothold in east Jerusalem. But the Palestinians held out for more land and a "right of return" for millions of refugees and their descendants.
Fighting broke out later that year. Some 800 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and more than 230 people on the Israeli side since Sept. 28, 2000.
In the interview, Arafat rejected the notion floated by some Palestinian officials recently that the Palestinians needed to compromise on the refugees.
Arafat also insisted that all the West Bank and Gaza settlements, in which 200,000 Jews live, must be removed; Barak had hoped to move borders around in a way that annexed a small amount of land that incorporated into Israel most of the settlers.
Arafat, 72, demurred when asked what he hoped history would write of him.
"The most important thing is what history writes about the suffering of the Palestinian people, and how we are suffering day by night. The most important thing for me is my people, their freedom, their lives, the future of our children. And their children."
Did he consider it a failure that 34 years after Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem there is still no Palestinian state?
"It will come," Arafat said. "No doubt."