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At 70, Arafat hopes to see state made real

Yasser Arafat has always been celebrated for sheer durability, surviving a desert plane crash, a poisoning plot, a car wreck and countless assassination attempts during his decades as a hunted guerrilla chief.

But as the Palestinian leader marked a milestone birthday on Wednesday _ his 70th _ an unspoken question hung over the festivities: whether the aging, ailing Arafat will live to realize his lifetime goal of Palestinian statehood.

"May God extend your life!" a small crowd of well-wishers shouted, offering the traditional birthday greeting as Arafat accepted a bouquet from a group of children outside his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah. A brass band blared a slightly off-key version of the Palestinian anthem Biladi, Biladi: "My Homeland, My Homeland."

The pace of progress toward Palestinian statehood is a sore subject these days. After an initial burst of enthusiasm over Ehud Barak's election as Israeli prime minister, Arafat and other Palestinian leaders are angered by what they see as reluctance on Barak's part to get the stalled peace process moving again.

And long-standing pressures on Arafat _ tensions with Islamic militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, public anger over corruption and disorganization in his Palestinian Authority, rifts and rivalries in the rough-and-tumble world of Arab politics _ show no sign of abating.

Only two days ago, in a burst of colorful invective, the defense minister of Syria _ with which Arafat has long been on the outs _ called him "the son of 60,000 whores and 60,000 dogs."

Wednesday's festivities were deliberately low-key, as Arafat dislikes celebrating his birthday. He is said to react with annoyance _ whether mock or sincere _ when aides give him a cake and ask him to blow out the candles.

But he welcomed a surprise visit from several dozen Palestinian children and teenagers attending summer camps in Ramallah, stepping outside to greet them and showering the youngsters with kisses. Asked to reflect on his life, he replied: "It was a hard journey, but a forceful one toward freedom."

Something of the old firebrand also surfaced when Arafat was asked what his birthday wish would be.

To pray in Jerusalem, "the capital of Palestine," he answered, and told the children he hoped one of them would raise the Palestinian flag someday over the city's walls. Palestinians want Jerusalem's traditionally Arab eastern sector to be their capital; Israel says it will never allow the city to be divided again.

"We will continue our struggle," Arafat vowed.

If all had gone according to plan, Palestinians would have proclaimed statehood three months ago. But their target date of May 4 fell just two weeks before Israel's hard-fought election, and Arafat held off, fearing a unilateral declaration of independence would cause jittery Israeli voters to back hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

That postponement was a gesture to Barak _ and is one reason the Palestinians now feel so embittered by what they see as foot-dragging by the new prime minister. Barak has said that he will not start the clock on the U.S.-brokered land-for-peace accord for a month and that no territorial handovers will take place until October.

After the long deadlock under Netanyahu, few things infuriate the Palestinians more than a sense that time is being wasted. Adding impetus to that is the fragile-seeming state of Arafat's health.

Noticeable tremors of his lower lip and hands appeared several years ago, leading to speculation _ always denied _ that he suffers from Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder.

Occasionally, he seems tired and unfocused during public appearances. But at Wednesday's brief outing, he was energetic and smiling, waving and giving the two-fingered victory salute.

Despite popular misgivings about the effectiveness of the Palestinian Authority, most Palestinians still regard Arafat with respect and affection, and continue to view him as the prime symbol of their statehood hopes.