Arafat raises Palestinian hopes of

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The Independent Online
PATRICK COCKBURN Nablus and SAFA HAERI Gaza

Yasser Arafat returned to Nablus yesterday for the first time since 1967 when Israel captured the city, the biggest on the West Bank. Thousands of Palestinians watched the PLO chairman land by helicopter beside Israeli military headquarters and cheered enthusiastically as he climbed onto its roof to address them.

Mr Arafat led the 15,000 Palestinians from Nablus and surrounding villages in chanting: "With our soul and blood we will redeem you, O Palestine."

Palestinian soldiers with assault rifles - theoretically part of the newly installed local police force - guarded the rooftops for snipers, scouring the wooded hillside overlooking the spot where Mr Arafat had landed.

The mood of the crowd was hopeful rather than confident, as if they were uncertain the Israeli withdrawal would make a real difference to their lives. "We are beginning to see results on the ground from Oslo, but nobody trusts the Israelis," said Abdullah, a local Fatah leader. He added: "It will take 18 months for people here to know what they are really getting." Mr Arafat was expected to declare officially late yesterday that he will stand officially for the presidency of the new, 83-member Palestinian self-rule council, which is to be elected on 20 January. Nobody doubts that he will win and that an overwhelming majority of the council will come from his Fatah organisation.

Earlier, in an interview in Gaza with the Independent, Mr Arafat demonstrated confidence that the assassination on 4 November of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, had increased popular support in Israel for the Oslo agreement. "It backfired on the fanatics, for at least 74 per cent of the Israelis now say they support the peace process," he said.

The West Bank is also more prosperous than Gaza, with its vast refugee population. Mr Arafat said: "All our infrastructure [in Gaza] has been completely destroyed during the occupation and we are starting from zero."

He may also draw hope from the fact that Simon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, is not as committed as was Mr Rabin to stopping Palestinians from working in Israel.

Their exclusion has led to a sharp decline in living standards in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr Arafat said the future of the Israeli settlements would be dealt with when final-status talks with Israel start next year.

So far, not a single settler has been moved. At the Israeli settlement of Elon More, on a hilltop overlooking Nablus, residents said they were worried rather than frightened by Palestinian self-rule. Valentin, a recent Russian Jewish immigrant, guarding the entrance to the settlement, gestured with his submachine gun towards the sprawling suburbs of Nablus in the valley below. "I don't know what land is held by the Israelis down there and what is held by the Palestinians," he said.

Half-way down the hillside, below Elon More, enormous bulldozers were scraping a road through an olive grove that will allow the 2,000 settlers to travel to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv without going past Nablus.

The Israeli government has promised the 135,000 settlers on the West Bank they will all have bypass roads to avoid the towns under Palestinian control. Whatever Mr Arafat's hopes, Elon More and the other settlements look very permanent.

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