The Israeli government’s recent decision in principle to “remove” Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from his position of authority by expulsion or possibly assassination has provoked a storm of protest in the occupied territories. The decision has also given rise to a worldwide outcry against the proposed action, including protests in Israel itself.

Against the background of spiraling violence and increasing tension, the Israeli security cabinet’s decision on Sept. 11 to eliminate Arafat is but the latest – and most provocative – assault on the Palestinian people’s political leadership. While the language was deliberately vague, i.e., of “removing” Arafat, vice prime minister Ehud Olmert told Israeli radio, “The question is: How are we going to do it? Expulsion is certainly one of the options, and killing is also one of the options.”

In response to the decision, thousands of Palestinians rallied for several consecutive days outside the Palestinian Authority’s compound in Ramallah in the West Bank, where Arafat has been held under virtual house arrest by Israeli troops since April of last year. Thousands more demonstrated in Gaza City in the Gaza Strip, shouting slogans in support of Arafat and denouncing the Israeli government.

Arafat addressed the crowds outside his battered compound in Ramallah.

“We have no tanks and no American made F-16 fighter jets or Apache gunship helicopters,” he said. “But should the terrorist Sharon regime realize its threat to deport me, or assassinate me, the Palestinian people will continue, and even strengthen, the fight for national liberation and the independent statehood.”

Arafat and other Palestinian leaders have condemned the recent suicide bombings in Israel. At the same time, they have called for an end to the occupation, Israeli settlements, and the systematic assassination of Palestinian leaders.

A large number of Palestinians volunteered to serve as human shields for the Palestinian leader, as did a number of Israeli peace activists. Among the Israeli peace activists who paid a solidarity visit to Arafat was a delegation from the Gush-Shalom peace bloc, headed by the well-known peace activist and publicist Uri Avnery; a delegation of the Israeli Communist Party and the democratic HADASH Front, headed by the CP general secretary and Knesset Member (MK) Issam Mahoul; the chair of Hadash, MK Muhammad Barakei; former MK Tamar Goszanski; as well as MK Ahmed Tibi of the Arab National Party.

“I am willing to put myself at risk and serve as a human shield,” said Avnery, “in order to foil Prime Minister Sharon’s intention to assassinate Arafat, the elected leader and president of the Palestinian people. So are many of my fellow Israeli peace activists.”

In an official statement, the Communist Party of Israel called the threat to remove Arafat “an act of political madness.” It said, “The CPI blames the settlers’ government for cooking up this provocation in order to destroy any chance for a political solution, including withdrawal from all the occupied territories, dismantlement of the (Israeli) settlements, two states – Israeli and Palestinian, two capitals in Jerusalem, and implementation of U.N. resolutions concerning the Palestinian refugees.”

It also charged that the Sharon government is using the “remove Arafat” provocation as a distraction from Israel’s “widening unemployment, poverty and hunger” and its “trampling of democratic and civil rights in Israel itself.”

Appealing to both Jews and Arabs, the CPI called for an end to removal plans and for an intensified effort to oust the “right-wing fanatic Sharon government.”

World reactions against the Israeli security cabinet decision were also strong. Numerous governments denounced the Israeli plan, and at the United Nations, where Palestinians had appealed for a special Security Council meeting to safeguard their president, the Security Council issued a statement expressing “the view that the removal of chairman Arafat would be unhelpful and should not be implemented.” Many charged it would be a gross violation of international law. The Arab League issued a similar statement.

The Bush administration, while distancing itself from Israeli vice minister Olmert’s open comments about killing Arafat, has clearly signaled that it wants the Palestinian leader pushed aside. Its road map for peace in the region, which is co-sponsored by the U.N., the European Union, and Russia, is currently stalled.

The author can be reached at Hans Lebrecht contributed to this story.