Arafat's welcome masks Palestinian mistrust

War on Terrorism: Gaza
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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat greeted Tony Blair as a "great man" and a "very, very dear friend of the Palestinian people".

The Palestinian leader seemed to relish the fact that Mr Blair chose to deliver his grand finale in the Gaza Strip, after his uncomfortable encounters with the intransigent President Assad of Syria and Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

The Israeli army assassinated another two Palestinians yesterday – in the West Bank town of Tulkarm – bringing to eight the number of Palestinians killed by Israel during Mr Blair's tour of the region.

His visit was the latest success in Mr Arafat's campaign to gain international support and to shrug off the unwelcome – and potentially fatal – embrace of Osama bin Laden, who has coupled his campaign against the West with the Palestinian cause. Anointed anew by the attentions of one of the world's big players, Mr Arafat dutifully trotted out his familiar lines, expressing his commitment to sustain a (much-abused) ceasefire, and to push forward with the "peace process". But none of this sense of purpose was reflected outside in the cluttered, desperate streets of Gaza.

Even before Mr Blair's entourage swept in, to be greeted with a cringingly dissonant rendering of God Save The Queen by a Palestinian military band – the "street" had delivered its verdict.

Made cynical after years of hearing foreign diplomats spout forth about the "peace process" with no results, it seemed to have concluded that Mr Blair's mission is principally about making it easier for the US and its allies to wage war on Afghanistan.

"He is only coming here because of the war in Afghanistan," said Mohammed Saman, 19, a computer student, "he is trying to fool the world." Abed Wadi, an engineering student, agreed. "Tony Blair doesn't actually know anything about the Palestinians or the situation here. We have had many promises but got nothing," he said.

The popular gloom has been deepened by the fact that Mr Arafat – anxious to minimalise the damage caused by Osama bin Laden's efforts – has hitched his wagon to the US-led coalition and clamped down on internal opposition.

Earlier this month, his forces killed three people, including a 12-year-old boy, during a street protest.

Yesterday, he banned a march through Gaza City to mourn the 84th anniversary of the Balfour declaration – regarded by Arabs as a dark moment in history in which Britain signalled its approval for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Armed Palestinian paramilitary security men were posted on many street corners. Graffiti vowing to avenge Israel's attacks with US-made weapons had been whitewashed and covered over with large painted slogans expressing support for Mr Arafat.