Arafat is the only one with a smile in Jericho

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The Independent Online
ALL THROUGH Jericho yesterday, Yasser Arafat was smiling. He grinned from the graffiti portraits on the walls. From T-shirts he smiled with proprietary concern. From a new series of coloured posters, he beamed down upon 'his' people with supreme confidence. Save for a small group of Jewish settlers, he was the only man smiling in Jericho yesterday.

It was, after all, to have been Mr Arafat's 'sacred day'; the day on which he once promised, several promises ago, to enter 'Palestine'. So it seemed almost cruel to raise the matter with his man in Jericho as a winter storm gusted a cloud of grey sand and garbage down the main street of what was yesterday supposed to have become the Palestine Liberation Organisation's temporary 'capital'. But Abdul-Karim Sidr put a brave face on it.

'We expected great changes,' he said. 'We expected the Israelis would take at least a single step to mark the day - like leaving the police station down the road. But I should have guessed. I telephoned the Israeli colonel, Avner, four days ago and asked if he'd move. He said it would depend on the negotiations.'

And did the local PLO leader still trust the bearded features that stared benevolently down upon him from his office wall? Mr Sidr pointedly studied the photograph long and hard. Then he gave a slight snort and said 'yes'.

They were less kind down the street. A businessman suggested that the PLO leader should watch out for his life. 'He made a big mistake,' he said. 'Arafat talked to the Israelis without strength. The position of the Palestinians is now very weak.' Cynicism clouded the face of the plastic chair vendor in the square. 'I saw him on television yesterday with his white face - he probably painted it white for the occasion.'

Round the corner, Ibrahim was repairing a bicycle tyre. 'Explain this to me,' he demanded. 'Saddam was given a deadline of 15 January to leave Kuwait - then, bang, he was bombed because he didn't meet the deadline. Then Israel had a deadline of 13 December to leave Jericho. And what happened? Nothing. That's what we are worth. We are powerless.'

In vain did one explain the small print - or the lack of small print - in the Declaration of Principles signed in Washington three months ago. The Israelis had to complete their withdrawal by April, not start it on cue at dawn yesterday morning. But 10 days sounds a long time under occupation, and Mr Sidr had his own reply to Yitzhak Rabin. In Cairo, Israel's Prime Minister had seen no harm in a 10-day postponement to the end of a 100-year war. 'If they can solve all these problems in just ten days,' Mr Sidr retorted, 'then they could have solved them over the past three months.'

Needless to say, there were citizens of Jericho yesterday who insisted the peace accord was not dead. Palestinian flags still snapped opposite the Israeli banner over the police station in the town square. A painted white dove flutters over a Palestinian flag above a garage near the mosque. But the flags and the dove, along with all those portraits of the PLO leader, went up before Mr Arafat's miserable announcement on Sunday.

Adnan Hamad, one of Mr Sidr's underlings, talked unhappily of Mr Arafat's 'version of democracy' - which turned out to be government of Mr Arafat, by Mr Arafat and for Mr Arafat. But Mr Sidr still thought the peace accord was 'the best we could get'.

Yet he could not understand why the Israelis and the PLO were unable to solve Mr Rabin's problems - of security and passages for settlers, of frontiers and the size of the PLO 'autonomous' area of Jericho. 'The Israeli military governor of Jericho controls 712 square kilometres,' he said. 'The British and Jordanian maps say that Jericho covers 365 kilometres. The Israelis offered us just 25 kilometres. I got a call from PLO headquarters in Tunis to tell me there'd be no withdrawal today. But no explanations.'

At midday, the PLO produced a crowd of supporters to demonstrate against the withdrawal postponement - 'to stop them throwing stones', one of the organisers admitted - while five miles away a group of settlers re-lit a massive iron Chanukah candelabrum above their synagogue to remind the world of their continued presence. Afterwards, as towering rain clouds began to drift down the hillsides above Jericho, one of them offered me a lift back to Jerusalem.

Out came the old arguments. 'The Palestinian army will be terrorists,' Gaby said. And then, pointing through the downpour in the direction of Jordan, he went on: 'They've already got a state if they want one - over there. If they set up a state here, we're going to have a Bosnia on our doorstep.'

We passed a shop where a plump middle-aged woman was selling Palestinian banners at 15 shekels ( pounds 3.30) a flag. 'If this PLO agreement falls through,' Gaby said, 'Rabin might fall with it.' And he smiled very broadly indeed.

The second part of Robert Fisk's television series 'From Beirut to Bosnia' will be broadcast on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm