Arafat is late for blind date with with destiny: PLO chief keeps the world waiting

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ON A ROOFTOP above Jericho's grubby main square sits a young woman with earphones, shaded by a large dish, checking the camera angles. Below in a cafe, a Palestinian policeman sits wafting away flies and puffing his hubble-bubble pipe. Along the street, a mother rocks in the shade of a tree, making plans for her new tenant.

Like everyone else around here, they are all waiting for the Chairman. But nobody knows when he will arrive.

It is being billed as the most spectacular homecoming in recent history, and will probably be staged right here on these lethargic, dusty streets.

It is rumoured the Chairman may bring with him the bodies of the most revered Palestinian martyrs, Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad, to be buried on their home soil. Or he may be accompanied by other Arab leaders. Or Yasser Arafat may come with 600 fellow 'revolutionaries', like 'gods descending from Olympus', as one Palestinian leader joked.

CNN is ready to go live. But nobody knows when. 'Everything's on hold. He's holding us all hostage here,' said Charlie Hoff, bureau chief in Jerusalem. 'Only two people know the date: Arafat and one other,' said Ali Rayan, director of the new Palestine Broadcasting Company, pointing heavenward.

The original date for the Chairman's homecoming was 15 June. Aides say he is acutely worried about the possibility of assassination, and is keeping his arrival date to himself. 'He is very afraid. He trusts nobody right now,' said one adviser. The Chairman may also be nervous about exactly what kind of Palestine he is going to find. 'He is asking all of us what is it like here now? How are things going? I don't think he can really picture it in his mind.'

It is not only in Jericho that they are waiting for the Chairman. There are reports that he will insist on coming to Jerusalem as well, to pray at the al- Aqsa Mosque. But yesterday, officials at the Awqaf, the administrative body for Islamic holy sites, said they had received no news.

'We do no not know if he will come here to pray. But we will be ready. We have 100,000 people here at Ramadan,' said Adnan Hussein, chairman of the Awqaf in the city.

Israeli officials are also waiting - and becoming more nervous by the day. Does the delay mean Mr Arafat may bottle out, they wonder? 'Visit, what visit?' asked a senior Israeli official testily. 'Any comment on the Chairman's visit is hypothetical. We have no news when it may be.'

Even in Tunis they are waiting. The Chairman has told his aides there to pack their bags and be ready to leave. His officials say airline schedules have been checked for many days ahead. But so far no tickets have been booked.

The latest rumour is that the Chairman is waiting until after the World Cup final, so he can be assured of prime time on television. But nobody even knows where he will speak, or even how he will arrive - across the Allenby Bridge or by air? The Jericho municipality has scraped off some graffiti in case the Chairman chooses to appear on the town hall balcony.

'We have been told to be ready by 25 June,' said a young workman called Adnan, standing outside a bungalow-style building where lime-green and yellow paint is drying on the walls. It is here - beneath the Israeli monitoring pylons on the Mount of Temptation - that the Chairman will make his seat of government, and establish self-rule. Or so they say.

'Security - it's all under control,' said Captain Iyad Abdo, a spokesman for Jericho's Palestinian police force. Palestinians from all over the West Bank and Gaza will try to squeeze through Israeli checkpoints to welcome the Chairman in person. 'Let them come. Let them come. They will find room,' said the captain.

The woman under the tree, Nadia Hamdoni, is the most confident of all that the Chairman will soon be on his way. She says her well-appointed villa has been checked for security, and the 11 bedrooms and four bathrooms made ready for the Chairman and his wife.

'He has accepted our offer,' she says. 'The political decision is made and everything is now ready. We are told the beginning of July. We are lending the Chairman our house for the sake of peace.'

(Photograph omitted)