Arafat exults at Israel's withdrawal from Ramallah PLO leader celebrates 'liberation' of West Bank

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, officially extended Palestinian self-rule to this city abutting Jerusalem yesterday, triumphantly capping a rapid delivery of much of the West Bank to his control.

"Let us, every individual, woman and man, make a pledge together to liberated Palestine -- to Palestine, the independent state," Mr. Arafat shouted to a cheering crowd of thousands from the roof of the former Israeli military headquarters.


"I declare Ramallah and El Bireh liberated cities forever, forever, forever!" he said.

Israeli troops withdrew from Ramallah and the neighboring town of El Bireh on Wednesday.


Although Palestinians have achieved neither statehood nor full independence, Mr. Arafat's declarations seemed to inaugurate a new political reality that has taken shape in the West Bank in two months.

The Palestinian Authority, headed by Mr. Arafat, now governs wide areas of the West Bank, since the withdrawal of Israeli troops from six cities and about 450 towns and villages under an agreement signed in September by Israel and the PLO to extend self-rule beyond the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

In the past few weeks, virtually all Palestinians in the West Bank have come under self-rule, ending 28 years of Israeli occupation.

The authority has complete control inside the cities. In rural areas, the Palestinian police maintain law and order, while Israeli forces can still intervene to prevent anti-Israeli violence.

Hebron, a flash point of Arab-Israeli tension, is the only city still under Israeli control. Most of it is supposed to be handed over in March, except for a Jewish enclave protected by the Israeli army, which also guards Jewish settlements scattered throughout the West Bank.

For many Palestinians the changes have been revolutionary, and they have celebrated them as harbingers of independence.

Buildings that were the nerve centers of the Israeli occupation have suddenly become Palestinian fortresses, headquarters of the Palestinian police festooned with giant Palestinian banners and likenesses of Mr. Arafat -- displays once outlawed by Israel.

Army compounds that were off limits to Palestinians have been thrown open to the public, and thousands have streamed through them, visiting prisons where some of them were once held.