Arafat wins mute salute in Jericho

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS such stuff as dreams are made on - Yasser Arafat arriving by air in the West Bank escorted by an Israeli helicopter gunship; Yasser Arafat, microphone in his right hand like a crooner, pleading to be heard as his supporters stormed the platform in 'free Jericho'; Yasser Arafat promising an 'industrial revolution' in the oldest city in the world; Yasser Arafat solemnly swearing in a 'government' whose 'Minister of Jewish Affairs' - himself a Jew - was the only cabinet member not to recognise the State of Israel.

Was there anything left to surprise us, now that the old man had arrived in his ramshackle capital? His features had become so familiar that only yesterday, on the last day of his first return to 'Palestine', did he show his age. The pepper-and-salt beard now matched the black-and- white keffiyeh on his head.

His habit of raising his eyebrows to compensate for his small eyes gave him the appearance of a surprised walrus, a characteristic caught with uncanny and cruel accuracy by the amateur wall artists of Jericho.

His rasping voice, which was ever more gravelly as he sought to shout down the crowds until he lost it altogether, and the constantly moving, whiskery features somehow made him appear both passionate and at the same time outrageous.

'Listen to me, listen to me,' he screamed. 'I have returned to Palestine . . . Don't touch those people' - this to the police who were manhandling the crowds.

'Stay calm . . . just hear me, listen to me like Dr Saeb told you to . . . listen to me . . . in 1948 the Israelis said they had found a land without people and that we were a people without land . . . listen to me . . . now we remind them that nobody can erase the Palestinian people . . . I want to tell you we are devoted to a just peace, committed to it - so at the same time I demand the other (Israeli) side show the same commitment . . . I want to know who is preventing people from coming here to Jericho today . . . unity, unity, unity . . . we shall pray in Jerusalem - till we pray in Jerusalem, till we pray in Jerusalem.'

It was painful to transcribe his speech - and to hear that failing voice, his ideas and phrases crashing into each other, as a lone, massive woman pushed her way through the armed security men and shrieked her desire to embrace 'the President of Palestine'. Mr Arafat stood stunned but suddenly relented and the lady was hauled to the dais. She hurled herself at Mr Arafat who recoiled in horror and then, with a frozen smile on his face, put his arms around her.

He had spotted the real problem when he demanded to know who 'prevented' people from coming to Jericho. For after the crowds had broken through the security fences and trampled through the journalists and photographers, it was evident - and it must have been even more so to Mr Arafat as he stood above us - that the field behind was empty.

Not half, perhaps not a quarter of the people of Jericho had bothered to turn out to see him. There were rumours that Israeli troops had turned back bus-loads of West Bankers - an Israeli soldier on the nearest checkpoint admitted he had stopped them, then said the opposite; settlers certainly stoned cars on the Jerusalem-Jericho road.

But a million Palestinians live in the West Bank. There were no curfews to keep them at home. They could surely have flocked to see their leader if they had wished to.

Nabil Shaath, Mr Arafat's principal factotum, had told Palestinians that Mr Arafat's visit would be an 'inspiration'. A lot of people in Jericho clearly were not inspired.

The number who greeted him in Jericho yesterday was smaller than the number of Lebanese who gathered to bid him farewell from Beirut after the 1982 siege.

Even Mr Arafat's address to the people of Jericho was a poor rehash of his Gaza speeches of last week - the appeals to unity, the refusal to bargain with the Israelis to free PLO but not Islamic Palestinian prisoners, the insistence that Palestine - not Arafat - was the only cause that they had.

'I am speaking now to our Palestinian prisoners,' he blurted out at one point. 'I know the size of suffering you are enduring behind bars. I am doing my utmost to relieve this suffering and to help you, my brothers . . . Wait, wait, wait.'

Was this a message that Palestinian prisoners, many locked up for more than a decade, wanted to hear? Why should they wait, when their jailers honoured Yasser Arafat with a helicopter escort from Gaza to Jericho?

And why was Mr Arafat's influence so small that he could not persuade his new Israeli friends to open the roads to Jericho?

The only powers the PLO tried to exercise yesterday involved the press, who were warned grimly not to approach the old man, because 'our military personnel have been instructed to stop you by force'.

In the event, the armed security men could not even control the small crowd; several ended up fighting each other.

(Photograph omitted)