Arafat honors Gaza's 'children of the stones'


JEBALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- Two months ago on this blazing landscape of corrugated rooftops, open sewers and scavenging goats, a black Mercedes with an escort of soldiers would have been an open invitation for a stoning by the angry young men of the "intifada" uprising.

Yesterday it was cause for joy. The new president, Yasser Arafat, was the passenger of honor, and he had arrived to thank these "children of the stones."

"When the intifada began, it was started by the children of the stones of Jebaliya," he told a cheering crowd of thousands, predominantly young men and boys, who gathered within the walls of a school yard. Mr. Arafat then praised those who died when their stones were answered with Israeli bullets, saying, "I tell you, my martyr brothers, a vow is a vow and a pledge is a pledge. I say to your families, your wives, your children and your brothers, you are in our hearts and minds."

The tribute was hard-earned.

In the 6 1/2 years since the Intifada began with rioting in the streets of Jebaliya, 1,180 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories.

The televised images of the one-sided confrontations soured public opinion against the Israeli occupation, and even some soldiers began to question their mission.

When Israel agreed to turn over the Gaza Strip and Jericho for limited Palestinian rule in September, it was considered a victory for these young resisters.

In May, Mr. Arafat signed the final terms for the arrangement, clearing the way for this weekend's historic visit.

The rock-throwing scenes still play out in West Bank towns such as Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus, where Israeli soldiers still patrol the streets. But in Gaza the only recent eruptions have been the celebrations after Mr. Arafat's on Friday.

Rifat Abu Namus, who waited several hours in the sweltering midday sun for the chance to see Mr. Arafat, wasn't disappointed.

"I'm 25 and I've never seen a day like this," he said. "Until now we've been living in a jail with the Israeli army here. Now we are free. Everything will change now."

Massad Ayesh, 26, was also a believer. "His coming will renew the hope of the people here. It is a rebirth."

The Jebaliya camp could sorely use a new life, and even through the tinted windows of his Mercedes Mr. Arafat couldn't have helped but notice the dust, the filth, the tumbledown homes, and perhaps even the stench, as his motorcade plowed through the soft sand of the narrow streets. About 66,000 people live here, and none seems to live well.

On a few occasions while passing through the village, Mr. Arafat poked his head through the car's sun roof for a quick smile and a wave. But for the second day in a row he mostly stayed out of sight and out of reach of the crowds that turned out.

His only two stops besides the schoolyard speech were at the site of a memorial to the first boy killed in the intifada, 17-year-old Hatem Abu Sisi, and at the home of Imad Akel, a militant of the extremist Islamic group Hamas. Mr. Akel was killed by Israeli troops last December.

Even though Mr. Akel might never have spoken in favor of Mr. Arafat, his father did yesterday, and Mr. Arafat sought to capitalize on the vote of confidence, saying, "I call from here to Hamas, the [Islamic] Jihad, the PFLP and Fatah, I call on them to help me lift the heavy burden. Come and help me lift it."

Mr. Namus said that he hopes Mr. Arafat won't wait long before coming back to Jebaliya, and that next time he'll take a closer look at all of Gaza's problems. "Three days is not long enough," he said. "I hope that he will be able to improve the streets, solve the problem with the sewage and build more houses."

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