Assassination fears for Arafat in Gaza

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YASSER ARAFAT, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, will seek to fulfil the hopes and dreams of Palestinian people today when he takes his first steps on Gazan soil as chairman of the new self-rule authority.

Mr Arafat, who had been expected to arrive in Gaza on Saturday, is now expected to cross by land from Egypt today amid massive security.

In what the Israelis are calling 'Operation Scorched Earth', more than 8,000 Israeli police are being drafted to back up the Israeli army in and around Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are also about 4,000 Palestinian police in Gaza, as well as a visible PLO security presence.

Amid fears of assassination attempts from Arab and Jewish extremists, General Nasser Youssef, head of the Palestinian police, and General Yomtov Samia, Israeli military co-ordinator for Gaza, met yesterday to plan protection for the PLO leader.

However, there were few other signs of readiness for Mr Arafat's arrival in Gaza yesterday. In Palestine Square, along the seafront, and in the sprawling refugee camps, Palestinians appeared almost numb as they calmly awaited what many have predicted would be one of the most momentous occasions in their lives.

Apart from a few freshly painted Palestinian emblems around the centre of the town, pictures of Mr Arafat were few and far between, and by last night the celebrations had yet to begin. After 27 years of disappointment and repeated delays in the peace process, Gazan scepticism runs deep. 'We don't believe the news. We have experience of the news,' said Mohammed Tarouli, a 26-year-old student. Gloom however can be swept aside by euphoria in seconds on Palistinian streets, and most of Gaza's 800,000 Arabs are expected to give Mr Arafat the welcome he expects.

Many will also want to ask him hard questions, however, and Mr Arafat must expect to be called to account by his own followers.

'We asked for all our Palestinian land. I will want to know from Arafat why we only got Gaza and Jericho,' said Yazid Abdel Hwehi, a local leader of Fatah, Mr Arafat's PLO faction. 'I will want to ask Arafat when the peace will bring jobs,' said Ata Abu Eida, a Gaza shopkeeper.

As he peers over the security cordon on his journey to Gaza City from the southern Raffah crossing-point, Mr Arafat will have the chance to confront some hard truths about the nature of his peace agreement. He will pass the big Israeli settlement block of Gush Qatif, which was kept by Israel as part of the deal. As he passes here Mr Arafat faces the risk of attack from settlers.

Yitzhak Shamir, the former prime minister, said yesterday that Mr Arafat's arrival 'symbolises the beginning of the annihilation of Israel'.