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Gaza gives a quiet welcome home to Mr and Mrs Arafat

WITH no ceremony this time, no crowds, and no public address, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, arrived in the Gaza Strip yesterday, with his wife, Suha, to take up permanent residence and set down the foundations for a Palestinian state.

Like anyone moving house and starting a new job, all at the same time, Mr Arafat, 64, clearly found the move from Tunis to Gaza a tiring experience. Within three hours of his arrival he was tucked up in bed in the brand-new five-star Palestine Hotel. A handful of women and children stood outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, along with a crowd of hopeful reporters.

'Go home. Mr Arafat has gone to sleep,' said Marwan Kanafani, his spokesman, speaking to the press which was asking for the PLO chairman's plans for the coming days.

Suha Arafat, 29, wearing her hair loose, with beige jacket and skirt, appeared more lively when she smiled broadly and announced that she planned to 'work for the liberation of women', a remark that will be treated with some scepticism in traditional Gaza, where almost every woman wears a veil.

It still appeared uncertain where the PLO chairman will live in Gaza. One suggestion was that he and his wife would move into the old governor's mansion, previously occupied by the Israeli border police.

Ten days after his first whistle-stop homecoming to Gaza, Mr Arafat crossed the border with Egypt yesterday at 10.30am, declaring his determination to get down to the laborious task of rebuilding Palestinian infrastruture. 'Don't forget that the Palestinian infrastructure was completely destroyed during the Israeli occupation and we must start from scratch,' he said before leaving Egypt.

Reports that Mr Arafat would arrive home with a group of Palestinian orphans, to be adopted by Gazan families, proved unfounded. The only people accompanying him were aides and bureaucrats who were also transferring their operations from Tunis.

Mr Arafat again by-passed the main border-crossing terminal, to avoid the humiliation of having to pass through Israeli checks. Two months after the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement, arrangement for a separate Palestinian terminal, with a Palestinian policeman at the border, have still not been finalised.

The PLO convoy sped north to Gaza City, but this time there was only a handful of onlookers to wave Mr Arafat and his wife by.