Celebration over, Arafat gets down to task at hand

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERICHO, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat moved beyond celebrations and sentimental journeys yesterday to swear in his government and get down to the business of running the Palestinian territory. Already his agenda looks full.

Mr. Arafat met with his new Cabinet to review plans to create jobs and build new housing in the impoverished Gaza Strip. Today, he ends his historic return to Palestinian territories and goes to Paris, where he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to discuss ways to expand the territory under Palestinian governance.

In the past few days, the Paris meeting has grown into a full-blown summit where the peace talks could gain momentum, said Nabil Shaath, the minister of planning. The chief topic is likely to be the timetable for further releases of Palestinian prisoners and further Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank. The Israeli army is to be withdrawn from populated Arab areas by October,under the pending agreement.

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Shaath called the government's first actions on jobs and housing "historic," saying, "They provide the impetus and the incentive for quick building, and for continuation of the peace process."

The moves also reflect popular sentiment among Palestinians -- hardly surprising considering that the first elections may be only three months away. A recent poll of the more than 800,000 Palestinians in Jericho and the Gaza Strip showed that the economy and high unemployment are the top issues.

Mr. Shaath said the government hopes to create up to 25,000 jobs during the next year by cleaning up Gaza's heaps of garbage and by beginning construction of up to 30,000 new homes.

Those are just the sorts of programs that many residents say they wanted to hear about.

"What we need most are jobs," said Mazin Darweesh, an unemployed man who drove to Jericho from the West Bank town of Jenin in hopes of seeing Mr. Arafat's arrival. "There is no work now for anyone."

Mr. Arafat's government addressed another popular and emotional issue by deciding that Palestinian prisoners recently released by Israel would receive salaries until jobs could be found for them.

A new government

At the swearing-in ceremony for the new government, 13 members of the new Palestinian National Authority took the oath office. They will serve until Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank elect a new 24-member council.

The Rev. George Makhluf, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of Ramallah, provided a gold-leaf Bible for the oath of the only Christian member of the Cabinet, Elias Freij, who will be the minister of tourism.

One of the more conspicuous members of Mr. Arafat's government will be Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, a member of a small, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that opposes the foundation of the state of Israel as an impediment to the return of the Messiah.

Rabbi Hirsch will be Mr. Arafat's minister of Jewish affairs, perhaps the only member of the Palestinian Cabinet who still disputes the existence of Israel and the only one who does not speak Arabic. He did not take an oath of office, however, because Jews do not swear oaths.

Faisal al-Husseini, another person named earlier to Mr. Arafat's Cabinet, also did not take an oath of office yesterday. Israeli television reported that it was because Israeli officials have warned him that he must first give up his position as head of the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem.

Repeated themes

The day began with a speech by Mr. Arafat to an unruly crowd of about 5,000, mostly young men and boys, gathered on the outskirts of Jericho.

Mr. Arafat repeated the themes that he has stressed since arriving in Gaza on Friday, calling for unity among feuding Palestinian factions and vowing that his effort for his people "will continue until we set up a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

Police set up rows of chain-link fence to protect Mr. Arafat from his enthusiastic admirers, but shortly after he arrived they trampled both barriers, swarming to the edge of the stage. Nervous security men surrounded Mr. Arafat several times as the crowd surged, and sometimes only his checkered headgear was visible. He was still rasping, having lost his voice the day before.

In spite of the crowd's enthusiasm, it was far smaller than had been expected, as was often the case during Mr. Arafat's five-day visit. Palestinian authorities had predicted that hundreds thousands would travel to the town from all over the occupied West Bank.

Part of the problem yesterday may have been the oppressive heat. Another may have been the fear and disruption caused by Israeli settlers, who yesterday followed through on their promise to try to block highways leading to Jericho.

In his speech, Mr. Arafat accused Israeli authorities of blocking Palestinians from coming. The Israeli police and army denied the accusation and insisted that they were diligent in keeping roads open.

At demonstrations witnessed by reporters, however, the police and army demonstrated their ambivalence about protecting those going to Jericho. One reporter's car was attacked by right-wing protesters while police watched, and protesters repeatedly struck the passing cars of Arabs without police interference.

Near the Jewish settlement of Mitzpe Jericho, the army brought a bulldozer to clear burning tires from the road but professed to be stymied when a group of teen-age girls sat in the bulldozer's shovel.

"We want to show the government that we don't want terrorists to come here," said one demonstrator, Joel Abrams, 29, using the term that right-wing Israelis use for all Arabs. "At least we don't throw rocks. We don't hurt anyone."

Some Palestinians said that they were turned back by soldiers.

Bilal al-Wad, 25, said that he was blocked at an army checkpoint and only got through after he returned to argue the point.

Mr. Arafat avoided confrontation by flying from Gaza to Jericho on an Egyptian helicopter, with an Israeli army helicopter escort.

Mr. Arafat's course took him too far north of Jerusalem for a good view of the city he wants to reclaim, but Mr. Shaath said that he was nonetheless moved by the flight over the West Bank.

"Whatever he saw was nostalgic, and those were moments of real emotional impact for him," Mr. Shaath said. "He was in a pensive mood."

Mr. Arafat returned to Gaza late yesterday, and from there was to continue to Paris for today's meeting.

The celebration ended tragically for the longtime mayor of Nazareth, Tawfiq Zayad, who was killed in a head-on automobile collision while returning from Jericho.

Mr. Zayad, 65, had been mayor since 1977, was a member of the Israeli Knesset, and was a well-known poet and articulate spokesman for Israeli Arabs.

In a conversation with The Sun hours before his death, Mr. Zayad called the day "the beginning of a process for a peaceful solution" that would benefit both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

"This is the most enthusiastic event I have seen in 50 years of politics," he said.

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