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Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's men are surrounding his office with women and children as a human shield against an Israeli attempt to assassinate or deport him, Israeli security sources said yesterday.

The sources said Arafat's men have asked senior Fatah activists and members of the Palestinian security mechanisms to "volunteer" their families for a permanent vigil of women and children, which will obstruct any attempt to harm Arafat.

Since the Israeli cabinet decision last week to deport Arafat, many Palestinians and other delegations are arriving at the Muqata compound in Ramallah daily to support Arafat. Two Israeli delegations of Knesset members and peace activists have also visited.

But according to security forces, the PA wants to ensure a permanent presence of civilians around Arafat and will see to it that women and children also stay in the Muqata at night.

The PA officials' fear of an Israeli move against Arafat has increased following the cabinet decision and the attempted assassinations of senior Hamas members, including the organization's spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Arafat's people believe that after the attempted hit on Yassin, Arafat is also fair game.

A senior Israeli military source said a move against Arafat is "a matter of how, not if." The IDF also intends to continue the assassinations of senior Hamas members.

IDF sources say Yassin was not the initial target of the bomb dropped from a plane two weeks ago on an apartment building in Gaza. The intention was mainly to kill as many senior Hamas activists as possible.