Jericho holds back on its welcome

JERICHO - Perhaps it was the heat, or the disappointment at taking second place on the PLO chairman's itinerary, but Jericho seemed reluctant yesterday to gear up for the arrival of Yasser Arafat, writes Sarah Helm.

His tour of the Gaza Strip complete, Mr Arafat is due to land in Jericho by helicopter at 9am today, to claim his first tiny slice of the West Bank. Police said more than 100,000 Palestinians were expected to pour into the enclave to welcome the PLO chairman. Although the streets began to fill last night, and Arafat posters multiplied, the numbers were smaller than expected. While in Jericho, Mr Arafat will seek to convince the 1 million West Bank Palestinians, not yet included in the self-rule scheme, that their turn will come next.

He is expected to address the crowds in Jericho's central square before convening his first 'cabinet' meeting in his new headquarters. So far Mr Arafat has filled only 19 of his 24-member Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Mr Arafat's continuing attempts to co-opt key opposition figures on to the authority, in order to widen his base of support, has delayed appointments of ministers for prisoners, agriculture, media, religious affairs and industry.

The PNA meeting will symbolise, more than any event in the tour, the ongoing transformation of the PLO government-in-exile into an organ in building a state.

It was announced yesterday that Mr Arafat wishes to make his home in the Gaza Strip where he will return on Saturday.

The people of Jericho have waited patiently for today and many yesterday said they were ready to wait a while longer while Mr Arafat builds his authority. 'The people want more than Mr Arafat is offering. Arafat has got no money and he has no government yet but we know it will be difficult and we can wait,' said Mohammed Nasrieh.

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