Defiant Arafat pledges to hold the peace line

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL SHERIDAN

Gaza

Yasser Arafat mused yesterday on the violent death of Yitzhak Rabin and on the dangers facing the surviving peacemakers in the Middle East.

"We want to continue the peace process after this awful crime," said Mr Arafat. Was he shocked? "Well," he said, "I have mentioned many times that there are many enemies for this peace process on the two sides. This is not the first time I have faced threats and danger." As he said this a little of the old defiant Arafat flickered in his tired face, and his hooded eyes seemed to twinkle with the memories of 1982.

"Sharon has mentioned that he had tried 13 times to assassinate me in Beirut," he said, referring to the hardline Israeli defence minister who besieged him in the Lebanese capital, "but I am a very strong believer that no one can escape from his destiny." "May God save you!" cried an elderly man in the audience at one of Mr Arafat's chaotic, but now heavily protected, press conferences.

Destiny, thus far, has propelled Mr Arafat to the small self-ruled enclave of Gaza, where he is busily performing the rituals of a head of state in a former club-house on the Mediterranean beachfront.

Yesterday he was playing host to the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, who had come to Gaza to pledge Britain's support for "the courage and vision like those of chairman Arafat". But even as the sun shone on surf outside the windows, the shadow of Mr Rabin's killing fell across the room, for Mr Arafat faces charges of treachery from his own radical critics.

Recently there has appeared to be a relaxation of tension between the chairman and the Hamas Islamic fundamentalist movement. Leaders of Hamas in Gaza flew to Khartoum this month to meet their "external leadership" where they agreed to have exploratory discussions with the PLO. "The fundamentalists are being absorbed under the Palestinian Authority," explained Taher Shriteh, a Palestinian journalist respected for his political analysis. "People see the beginnings of economic development and they want to be part of the success."

But Mr Arafat has been hampered in his task of nation-building by the slow pace of Israeli withdrawals, and by the formidable economic problems in the tenements and camps where most of Gaza's 800,000 people live. Annual per capita income in Gaza is only $850, compared with $1,700 in the West Bank. During the years of Israeli occupation and the Palestinian uprising, the economy collapsed, creating poverty and unemployment that drove many young people to the fundamentalists.

The immediate cause of tension is the presence in Gaza of about 4,000 Israeli settlers who occupy almost one-third of the territory. Recent suicide bombings by Islamic militants were aimed at settler targets but such incidents are a throwback to the time when Gaza lived in a permanent state of curfew, shootings and disorder.

Now there are the glimmerings of hope as a trickle of international aid begins to make a difference and some funds flow back from Palestinians in exile. Mr Rifkind announced yesterday that Britain would fund two more projects for education and police equipment that will come out of the pounds 83m allocated in British aid over three years. Britain has been doing what it can to help Mr Arafat acquire the authority of government, and Mr Rifkind's visit followed one by the Prime Minister earlier this year.

British police are helping to train the new security forces, and other UK-funded projects include help for rehabilitation of political prisoners, and assistance to the new Palestinian broadcasting network.

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