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Arafat returns in victory


RAFAH CROSSING, Gaza Strip -- Yasser Arafat returned yesterday as president in the place he had sworn to recover when he left it 27 years ago, fleeing in disguise from Israeli soldiers.

His entry to the Gaza Strip yesterday was treated as a victory procession by Palestinians. Tens of thousands jammed a hot field in Gaza to hear Mr. Arafat's speech, and thousands more lined his route from the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah to the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Arafat kissed the ground when he arrived, and Palestinian soldiers hailed him in Gaza City with the cacophony of automatic rifle fire.

It was an echo of the gunfire that has accompanied the long and bloody land feud between Israelis and Palestinians.

For the aging former guerrilla, who came dressed in his usual military uniform and checkered Aram head scarf, yesterday's scene of rejoicing Palestinians in the swelter of dust and heat was a bittersweet answer to his lifetime goal. He had returned to his people's homeland, but only to preside over a small part of the territory for which he had fought with violence and diplomacy over three decades.

For most Israelis, it was a scene borne grimly: the man reviled as a terrorist was now welcomed in a land that until two months ago was patrolled by Israeli soldiers.

For many cheering Palestinians, the arrival of Mr. Arafat was at least the figurative inauguration of a Palestinian state.

"He's the symbol for the Palestinian people. He's what we've been waiting for," said Maher al-Khairy, 48.

Fears for Mr. Arafat's safety proved unfounded yesterday. Despite bitter factional divisions among the Palestinians, the crowds remained peaceful.

But security was tight. On his route stretching 20 miles from Rafah to Gaza City, Palestinian soldiers and police manned 44 checkpoints.

The only major gap was a stretch running by an Israeli army post near the Jewish settlement of Gush Katif, where dozens of blue and white Israeli flags fluttered and jeep loads of Israeli soldiers remained on standby.

Israel's Army Radio reported a man was seized during Mr. Arafat's speech with a gun disguised as a camera.

But it turned out to be a cameraman with an actual camera.

Efforts by the Israeli ultra-nationalists to snarl traffic in Jerusalem in protest of Mr. Arafat's visit largely fizzled.

Only a few hundred demonstrators arrived, and they were overwhelmed by police and military.

But the Palestinian leader's speech yesterday may fuel plans by the right wing for a larger demonstration tonight.

He reasserted Palestinian claims over Arab East Jerusalem and declared a continued effort to release prisoners held by Israel.

"We are going on from here; from Gaza we will go to Hebron and Nablus and Tulkarm and Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour and finally, at last, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem," Mr. Arafat chanted. "We promised the martyrs we would pray for them in Jerusalem."

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, including predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, captured in 1967. Most countries, including the United States, do not recognize that claim.

Mr. Arafat, 64, could brag of only a partial victory in the original objectives of his movement.

Israel agreed to Palestinian autonomy for the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho under terms that give substantial veto power to the Jewish state.

The rest of the West Bank is supposed to come under similarly limited Palestinian control when Palestinians hold elections there. Mr. Arafat said yesterday that that will be within three months.

Mr. Arafat's visit was the delayed result of the historic agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization last September, which led to Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho in May.

In a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, before departing for the Gaza Strip, Mr. Arafat referred to his hasty departure from West Bank six months after Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Six Day War.

"The last time I left, I was there in Palestine secretly. I entered secretly, and I left secretly," he said. "Now I am returning to the first free Palestinian land."

Mr. Arafat spent six months in disguise after the Israeli occupation began in 1967. Then he headed a minor guerrilla group. Over the next two decades, he would become notorious worldwide as the grizzled leader of the PLO, the umbrella organization for various groups waging attacks on Israelis.

"On this day we meet for the first time together and equally on the soil of Palestine," Mr. Arafat said when he arrived in Gaza City.

In his speech, he reaffirmed Palestinian demands that Israel release the remaining prisoners -- estimated at about 6,000 -- arrested over the years of the Palestinian uprising.

He also appealed for unity with rival Islamic factions, and said he would continue to press for the release from Israeli prison of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader or the Islamic Hamas group.

Mr. Arafat's speech was given in a scene painted in the sepia tones of a historical picture: dust from the massed crowd rose to mix with the harsh sunlight, giving the air the yellowish tint.

But the speech was interrupted only occasionally by cheers from the crowd.

Afterward, spectators melted away quietly, in contrast to the excitement they had shown in waiting for their leader, their enthusiasm worn down by the fierce sun.

Dignitaries and admirers

At his arrival in Rafah, several hundred dignitaries and invited guests sat in a small patch of shade, waiting for hours in the heat. Late arrivals in a group from Jerusalem, including half a dozen Islamic holy men in long black robes, ended up stuck in the sun, fanning themselves with their hands and with small plastic Palestinian flags.

Meanwhile, hundreds more people, mostly teen-aged boys and young men, crept around security posts to the fringes of the scene. Some, like 14-year-old Abu Hassan, hiked several miles through apricot groves and fields of withered corn, then skirted the cactus hedges which fence in Gaza's farms.

"I had to come," the sweating boy said. "It is history. There will never be another first visit, and there will never be another first president. I want to say I saw him on the first visit."

Mr. Arafat crossed the border about 40 minutes late -- an improvement over his legendary tardiness -- and shook the hands of an Israeli general who was there to greet him.

His black Mercedes then wheeled past an Israeli flag onto a road lined by more than 30 Palestinian flags. When the anxious young men caught sight of the cars, the orderly scene dissolved into chaos.

Spectators tore through a formation of Palestinian soldiers who had been standing at attention, bayonets fixed. They surged by a bagpipe band of high school boys, bringing the music to a whining halt. And they mobbed Mr. Arafat as he climbed from the car.

The crowd briefly lifted Mr. Arafat on its shoulders before setting him down. He went back into his car and the motorcade then roared up the highway toward Gaza City, skirting larger population centers when it could.

In Gaza City, Mr. Arafat spoke for 30 minutes, and then disappeared for closed meetings with PLO officials and supporters. He is scheduled to leave Monday, but little else about his trip is set.

The habitually secretive leader has not notified Jericho when he will arrive, though aides have confirmed he does not intend to try to visit Jerusalem this trip.

Israeli opposition

Israeli opponents of the peace agreement with the Palestinians, led by the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, have vowed to blockade any attempt by Mr. Arafat to visit the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic mosque which Israel has promised to keep open for Muslim worshipers.

A poll released yesterday in the Hebrew newspaper Yediot Ahronot showed that 65 percent of Israelis favor barring Mr. Arafat from praying there.

Right-wing Knesset member Rafael Eitan said yesterday that the Israeli government's acceptance of Mr. Arafat was "groveling" and called him "the most terrible murderer of the Jewish people since Hitler."

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres replied, "This hysteria doesn't do any good. . . . This is artificial excitement."

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