Arab invokes Arafat, asks Gaza to back plan


GAZA CITY, Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip -- It was a rather crude portrait of Yasser Arafat -- it shaped him long and thin, ironically something like a map of Israel -- but the point was made. The painted old guerrilla chief glared at the audience from the front of the lectern, lest anyone was tempted to forget him.

Faisal al-Husseini leaned over Mr. Arafat's checkered-scarfed head yesterday to urge support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement at a rally in Gaza. Before him, a long, smoky hall overflowed with more than 2,000 men who cheered at each mention of Mr. Arafat.

"Abu Amar," they shouted, using the Palestinians' affectionate name for the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman. "Go forward. Talk. Do not hesitate."

It was an admittedly stacked crowd. Mr. Husseini, head of the Palestinian negotiating team, addressed mostly supporters as he kicked off an effort to sell the controversial plan of autonomy for Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

Although the Gaza Strip is a first beneficiary of the plan, it is a radicalized place, and there is much support for opposition groups that reject any deals with Israel.

The strip has some 750,000 Palestinians, many of them refugees from Israel's 1948 Independence War and occupants of run-down camps. The contest to win "the street" -- shorthand for public opinion among the Palestinians in the territories -- is so crucial that Mr. Husseini has left his negotiating delegation in Washington to campaign here for the plan.

He is sweetening the pitch by calling the proposed accord a "road that will reach the independent Palestinian state with the capital in Jerusalem." Those are wincing words for Israel, which still rejects Palestinian statehood and is adamant about not sharing Jerusalem nor returning any part of Arab East Jerusalem that could be used as a Palestinian capital.

The pact initially would turn over many government functions to Palestinians in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip, but the area would remain under ultimate Israeli control. The final status of all the West Bank would be determined within five years.

"The agreement to permit a quick withdrawal of the Israeli forces within four months from Gaza and Jericho will be followed by the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank, to be replaced by the forces of the Palestinian Army from inside [the territories] and outside," Mr. Husseini said yesterday.

The surprise disclosure of the secretly negotiated Israeli-Palestinian plan has set previously concrete opinions shifting like the sands of a desert storm in the Middle East.

Mr. Arafat is lobbying throughout the Arab world. Jewish supporters and opponents are competing to see who can turn out larger crowds. In the territories, Palestinians are embarked on campaigns of slogans and seminars to sway public opinion.

Palestinian leaders fear the dispute could become violent, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where various factions have long been locked in a contest for control. But leaders of the PLO and the radical Hamas organization have forsworn violence, and Mr. Husseini yesterday made a point of being accommodating.

Yesterday's rally at the Al-Azhar University in Gaza was the largest held so far among the Palestinians. It was an unusual foray by Mr. Husseini into Gaza, often unfriendly territory for the man from an aristocratic Jerusalem family.

"He was a good leader. But now, we have many doubts. He lied to us many times," Majdi Akeel, a science lecturer at the Islamic University in Gaza, said of Mr. Husseini.

Mr. Akeel sat under a shade tree on the campus, near the PLO rally, and estimated that Hamas opposition to the plan would prevail.

"It doesn't fulfill any of our rights," he said. "The majority of Palestinians refuse it."

He said the opponents will use "tongues only" to contest the plan. "Using force -- machine guns -- we reject. Palestinian blood is holy," he said.

"I'm opposed to the peace plan," said Yasser Abdul al-Abed, 22. But he acknowledges that if a Palestinian police force is installed that tries to end the intifada uprising, rivalries could flare.

"I won't fight against other Palestinians, except in one case," he said. "If they prevent me from fighting against the Israelis, I will fight against them."

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