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Death fear said to hold back Arafat

Former guard says it fueled resistance to Jerusalem pact

GAZA CITY -- Fear of assassination kept Yasser Arafat from accepting a US-brokered agreement on sharing Jerusalem, despite pleas by Arab and other world leaders at the time, the Palestinian leader's longtime bodyguard said in an interview.

In his first interview with foreign media since Arafat died a year ago at the age of 75, Mohammed Al Daya also said that he believes his former boss had been murdered. He did not offer proof.

Arafat's medical file is inconclusive about the cause of his death on Nov. 11, 2004. Rumors have abounded in the Middle East that he had died of AIDS or had been poisoned by Israeli agents, a charge Israel denies.

Al Daya was at Arafat's side for 15 years and appeared in almost every photo of the Palestinian leader. The bodyguard was shot and wounded in 2003 by a member of the Palestinian security forces as a result of a personal rivalry in Arafat's office.

The gunman is in detention, and has publicly apologized. At the time, Al Daya was removed as Arafat's bodyguard, but kept his rank as a lieutenant colonel in the security forces.

Sitting in his small Gaza City apartment under a large photograph of himself and Arafat, Al Daya, 36, sifted through dozens of other snapshots of him with the Palestinian leader.

Al Daya recalled the 2000 Middle East summit when Arafat met with President Clinton and Ehud Barak, then the Israeli prime minister, at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland in an effort to secure a peace agreement.

Arafat had balked at provisions for Jerusalem that would have involved shared sovereignty, Al Daya said.

The dispute over Jerusalem is one of the most intractable issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank and Gaza for an independent state, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its eternal capital.

''I remember one night when he met with Clinton face to face," Al Daya said of Arafat, adding that only he and a translator had seen the encounter.

''Clinton was trying to convince him to agree to a deal on Jerusalem," the bodyguard said. But, he recalled, Arafat asked the translator to tell Clinton that ''if he wants me to sign this deal, it means he wants to issue an open invitation to my funeral, because I will die at the hand of my own people."

''We went back to our room, and suddenly the phone, which had been silent for . . . days, started ringing, and I began answering calls from all the world leaders, including Arab leaders, asking Abu Ammar to agree to Clinton's offer. He answered with two words: 'No way.' " Abu Ammar was Arafat's nom de guerre.

The bodyguard identified President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia at the time, now King Abdullah, as among those who called.

Egypt's presidential spokesman, Suleiman Awad, said: ''I wouldn't take seriously the report of a bodyguard, who stands outside the room of negotiators."

The Saudi king could not be reached for comment.

A Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who was at Camp David at the time, denied that Arab leaders had pressed Arafat to yield on Jerusalem.

Al Daya also said he did not think Arafat had been poisoned, noting that others usually shared his food. However, he said a more thorough investigation of the cause of death was needed. ''The least that can be done to honor Yasser Arafat is to know the truth about his death, to investigate who was behind it and why."

Two Palestinian panels are investigating the circumstances surrounding Arafat's death.

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