Arafat conjures up vision of Palestine: Robert Fisk saw the head of the new self-rule authority arrive in Gaza, and wondered about the future

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The Independent Online
THE OLD conjuror turned up, late as usual, with another illusion to foist upon us. His face was the same as it was in Beirut 12 years ago, when he claimed victory over the victorious Israelis and inspected his troops on the quayside before fleeing Lebanon. Yasser Arafat looked older, of course, the cheekbones more pronounced, but the eyes were the same as he pushed his way through the frenzied crowd at yet another inspection yesterday: half-way between ecstasy and fear.

Only minutes before, a young gunman had shrieked through a police tannoy that Mr Arafat would lead them to Jerusalem, and many of the Palestinians seemed to believe it.

The illusions thickened. Mr Arafat had come 'to build a homeland, a nation of freedom, equality and democracy', he told us in that packed, sweating square in Gaza two hours later. And who could deny the Palestinians their hopes after the terrible years of occupation? Yet who could ignore the familiar scenes on the road, from the Egyptian border crossing point at Rafah: the screaming gunmen, the armed youths joy-firing from the car windows, the horse bolting in panic outside Khan Younis, its cart crashing into the olive trees by the roadside? It was Lebanon that came to mind.

Even before Yasser Arafat staged his homecoming before the world's television cameras, there were Palestinian mukhabarat security men on the roads, pistols in their belts, overweight and suspicious, the very same apparatchiks - as they happily reminded me at one checkpoint - that once ruled the streets of Beirut. Now, they said, they were all soldiers; another conjuring trick, like the parade at Rafah of smartly dressed men from the Palestinian navy - their drill immaculate, their dressing impeccable - who do not have a ship.

Then there was Mr Arafat himself, a Hitler to the Israeli settlers down the road in Gush Qatif who have been so slow to understand the nature of his transformation from super-terrorist to super- statesman. He may have driven across the Egyptian border to the Gaza Strip in the usual fatigues and keffiyeh but he quickly realised that the reception awaiting him - of esteemed and elderly village dignitaries sitting in the heat - was not worthy of his time. He swept past them in a mob of security men, greeting only the widow of his old comrade Abu Jihad - assassinated by the very nation whose troops were now watching him from the roadside.

'Never,' said one of the Israeli soldiers - a veteran of the Lebanon war, wearing the purple beret of the Givati Brigade - 'did I ever imagine in all my life that I would have to help protect Yasser Arafat.' Across that same road, I found Captain Abu Shamra, a Lebanon veteran with the black beret of the Palestine Liberation Army on his head, who insisted that in Beirut he 'never, ever doubted' that he would 'return to Palestine'. The old conjuror had confounded both the Israeli and the Palestinian.

Of course, it is easy to be churlish. Standing with his head through the sunroof of his car as it raced towards Gaza, Palestinian women and children waving to him from the palm groves, Yasser Arafat was seen by his bodyguards to be crying uncontrollably. As his voice echoed around the hot concrete facades of Gaza City, we heard him address himself to his enemies among both the Israelis and the Palestinian Hamas movement. For the Israelis, he announced a 'peace of the brave'. For Hamas, he praised the courage of their imprisoned leader, Ahmed Yassin. He saluted the 'steadfastness' of the Palestinians in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan without mentioning that his peace agreement in effect excludes them from their old 'right of return' to Palestine. Then he told the crowds that they would 'all pray together in Jerusalem'.

Had he not seen the Israeli soldiers along his route into Gaza City, dug in behind their earth revetments in combat jackets, belt- fed machine-guns pointing at the highway? Had he not noticed the forest of Israeli flags that first greeted him - before any Palestinian flags - as he entered his homeland? Did he not see the notice announcing that entry to the Palestinian 'autonomous' area was 'by co-ordination with the Israel Defence Force'?

Back in the port of Tripoli 11 years ago, only months after his Beirut debacle, Mr Arafat had fled Lebanon again, this time with the promise that he was on his way to Palestine. So romantic was the notion that most Palestinians forgave him for boarding a Greek cruise ship to Tunis.

But he has always thought that if you believed hard enough in anything, it would somehow come true. Generous hearts would let him enjoy his triumphant, chaotic entry into Gaza yesterday. But a few months ago, he told the world that he knew how to govern a country because he had 'run' Lebanon for several years. From today, words are going to have to acquire their real meaning.

Living proof, page 8

(Photograph omitted)