Green light for Arafat's Gaza visit

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The Independent Online
AFTER 26 years in exile, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is to visit the Gaza Strip on Saturday, to take personal control of the new Palestinian self-rule authority.

Israel confirmed that Mr Arafat will make a three-day trip. Oded Ben-Ami, spokesman for Prime Minister Yit zhak Rabin, said: 'I can confirm the fact that the chairman will be coming on Saturday.' Mr Ben-Ami said the PLO chairman had yesterday made a request to begin his visit and Israel said Saturday would be the earliest feasible date. Mr Arafat had agreed, Mr Ben-Ami said.

The impending visit, after weeks of hesitation and delay, will bring hope throughout Gaza, Jericho and the rest of the West Bank, that the peace deal is moving to future independence.

The sudden announcement took the Israelis and Palestinians by surprise. Nabil Sha ath, Minister of Planning in the new Palestine National Authority, broke the news in Tunis. Israeli leaders had not been expecting the visit for several more weeks, and Mr Rabin hesitated at first to give the go-ahead, insisting the trip could not take place without co-ordination with Israel.

Mr Arafat had been widely expected to start his return visit in Jericho, where he has been planning to take up residence, and set up the headquarters of the 24-member Palestine National Authority.

It is now nearly two months since the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement in Cairo, and Palestinians had almost given up hope of seeing Mr Arafat on Palestinian soil. Fears of assassination and disagreement with the Israelis about the way the deal has been implemented have caused the PLO chairman to hesitate. About 6,000 Palestinian prisoners are still in Israeli jails, and no deal has yet been finalised on the size of Jericho.

Since the signing of the agreement thousands of Palestinian police have arrived in the two enclaves and security has largely been kept under control, which has pleased the Israelis. However, the setting up of a full Palestinian administration remains in its early stages, and the next steps towards self-rule await the command of Mr Arafat.

The PLO chairman is expected formally to inaugurate the Palestine National Authority, allowing it to assume full powers, including power to legislate, for the first time.