Arafat's erratic visit frustrates fans, concerns donors


KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip -- Yasser Arafat's chaotic visit to the Gaza Strip is worrisome to those looking for signs of how he will run a government in the Palestinian territories.

The slap-- style of the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization has exasperated his own aides and disappointed fans. He has refused to set an agenda, has changed plans frequently and impulsively, and has left thousands of Palestinians waiting in vain for a glimpse of their hero.

Partly as a result, the crowds greeting Mr. Arafat on his return have been large but not overwhelming. Though many have craned to see him with tears in their eyes, many others have stayed at home.

An enthusiastic audience of several thousand met him yesterday in the town of Rafah. But several thousand more waited all day in sultry heat for the announced arrival of Mr. Arafat in nearby Khan Yunis. He did not come, and sent no one to tell the waiting crowd to go home.

"We were cheated," grumbled Ahmed Abu Ahmed, as he walked away from a long day spent in vain.

"He should have come to see us," said a woman who gave her name as Muntiha, who sweltered for four hours with 10 children in the sun before leaving.

This is more than a scheduling glitch for a leader much in demand in territories he has not visited for 27 years.

Mr. Arafat has refused to set a schedule, despite significant security and logistical preparations needed for his movements.

He has repeatedly changed his announced intentions. His arrival in Jericho, for example, was first canceled, then set for yesterday, then tomorrow and then moved to today, with new changes by the hour. He does not show up where his aides say he will and is often hours late for appointments he does keep.

In this, his symbolic return to Palestinian land, the symbols are not encouraging.

According to reports from his inner circle of advisers, those few ,, aides willing to challenge Mr. Arafat have complained bitterly of the need for plans and advance preparations, mostly in vain.

Mr. Arafat still keeps to himself nearly all decisions, a habit acquired in years as a wanted guerrilla. He refuses to delegate decisions and makes abrupt changes on impulse, according to those who know him.

That style is not likely to impress Western donor nations, who have been slow to give the billions in financial aid desperately needed in Jericho and the Gaza Strip. They have insisted on plans, reports and accountability for the money, while Mr. Arafat has stubbornly insisted that he should control where and how it is spent.

Nor has it given the new Palestinian autonomy government the kick-start some had hoped from his visit.

Mr. Arafat has seemed in no rush to get to Jericho to swear in the new council that will lead the government. There has been no rash of appointments of ministers and other officials to take charge of departments.

"If he runs the government like he runs everything else, it will never get off the ground," said one Palestinian source, who would not be named.

Yesterday, Mr. Arafat ordered his security guards to relax, allowing him to get close to the crowd in Rafah. But this personal contact with the masses this trip has been generally limited: he has raced through the Gaza Strip inside a darkened black limousine, preceded by eight carloads of security men waving automatic weapons at bystanders and followed yesterday by 24 truckloads of soldiers.

Members of opposition Palestinian factions insist they have not seen a huge rise in Mr. Arafat's popularity at the expense of their support, such as occurred after the peace accord was signed in September.

"There's no doubt after the absence of Arafat for 27 years, a lot of people like to see him," Sheik Ahmad Bahar, president of the Gaza Strip Islamic Organization closely aligned with the opposition group Hamas, said yesterday. "But that doesn't change who they want to support."

Many Palestinians graciously excuse Mr. Arafat's erratic behavior a necessity of safety. Indeed, the guerrilla leader survived numerous assassination attempts by both Israelis and Palestinians through the years because he impulsively changed his plans.

"We are used to him being this way," said a captain in the new Palestinian police force, Riyad al-Kasas. "Yasser Arafat says he is going to go to Egypt, and he shows up in Iraq. He says he is going to Khan Yunis, and shows up in Rafah. He's a fox, and a fox is smart."

Indeed, Mr. Arafat does have enemies.

According to Reuters, he was concerned by the Israeli right-wing protesters who smashed windows of Arab stores Saturday night in Jerusalem, and had asked for increased security when he visits Jericho, near Jerusalem.

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