JERUSALEM, April 2 (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday threatened his long-time foe Yasser Arafat with assassination in barbed comments in which he called the veteran Palestinian president a poor insurance risk.
Sharon, who is under fire in Israel over his plan for a Gaza pullout and over a bribery scandal, also included Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hizbollah guerrilla group, in threats issued in a series of newspaper interviews.
“I wouldn’t suggest either one of them should feel secure. I wouldn’t propose that any insurance company give them coverage,” Sharon told Israel’s Haaretz daily.
“Anyone who kills a Jew or harms an Israeli citizen, or sends someone to kill Jews, is a marked man. Period.”
Sharon’s most explicit threat yet against Arafat came 10 days after Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in a helicopter strike in Gaza. Hamas, dedicated to destroying Israel, has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings.
An Israeli-Arab legislator who visited Arafat said the Palestinian leader dismissed the threat saying: “Sharon has tried to kill me 13 times and failed. I’m not an easy mark.”
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said of Sharon’s remarks that the alternative to Arafat would be “chaos, extremism and anarchy” in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli police stormed the square outside al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam›s holiest sites, and used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse Palestinian stone-throwers after Friday Muslim prayers.
Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Waqf, which oversees the compound, said police acted without provocation and called the Israeli action a “flagrant violation of freedom of worship”.
In the southern Gaza Strip, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian during a raid to uncover weapons-smuggling tunnels in Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border, witnesses said.
In a separate incident in the central Gaza Strip, soldiers shot a Palestinian gunman, military sources said. Palestinian security sources said he was killed.
ISRAEL PROMISED U.S. NOT TO HARM ARAFAT
Israel’s government declared in September that Arafat should be “removed”. But Arafat, 74, has scoffed at such threats, saying he would welcome “martyrdom”.
Sharon, moreover, has acknowledged he has promised the United States not to harm Arafat, regarded by Palestinians as a symbol of their struggle for statehood.
Arafat, holed up in his battered headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has strongly denied Israel’s allegations he has supported a wave of attacks in the past three years of conflict with Israelis.
Sharon is under pressure from far-right coalition partners – the same political allies who have long demanded that Israel kill Arafat – over his plan to remove soldiers and settlers from most of Gaza and some of the West Bank.
The Maariv daily quoted Sharon as saying all settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank would be evacuated. He said he hoped the Gaza pullout, in what he called the absence of a
Palestinian peace partner, would be under way by next Spring.
Sharon is due to hold talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on April 14 to finalise details of the plan.
But his proposal could be rendered moot should he lose a binding referendum he plans to hold on the issue in his Likud party or if Israel’s attorney general accepts prosecutors’ recommendations to indict him in a bribery case.
On Thursday, Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie met separately with U.S. envoys to discuss unilateral moves Sharon says Israel must make in Gaza and the West Bank while a peace “road map” remains stalled by bloodshed.