PLO authority gets off to humble start

JUST 27 years after Jericho fell to an Israeli armoured column, Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, descended yesterday through the morning skies to reclaim this West Bank town for Palestine.

The clatter of helicopter blades, the wailing of bagpipes and the swearing-in of the new Palestine National Authority (PNA) inaugurated Jericho's grand new role as Palestinian 'capital'. In the new PNA headquarters, Mr Arafat's ministers vowed to 'respect the law and serve the Palestinian people', discussing for the first time as an authority their programme for self-rule and declaring elections will be held this year.

Mr Arafat flew back to Gaza last night before heading to Paris today where he will discuss the authority's proposals at a summit with Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister.

Despite the sense of history for Mr Arafat and the few who came to welcome him, the return to Jericho brought mixed emotions.

Tired though he seemed, he was clearly still exhilarated by his trip home from exile. After four days visiting the Gaza Strip, the PLO chairman was now setting foot for the first time, during this homecoming, on the West Bank - which soon, he hopes, will be wholly under his control.

But the West Bank plot allotted to Mr Arafat so far by Israel is so tiny that the PLO chairman seemed ill at ease here. Mr Arafat tried to rise to the occasion yesterday, stoking up the crowd with victory signs. 'We have proven to the world that the Palestinian people cannot be suppressed.' But as he spoke his hoarse voice faltered while he scanned the middle distance, where Israeli troops remain a few miles from the town.

After the speech he disappointed well-wishers by staying closeted inside his headquarters, conducting his PNA discussions in secret while gunmen pushed away the press and admirers watched from rooftops.

Palestinians gave their own explanations for the low turnout to greet the PLO leader in Jericho. 'Too hot,' said some, signalling a degree of apathy. 'They were worried that he may not come after all,' said others.

At one checkpoint near Jericho, a businessman from Ramallah said that the visit had sparked little celebration in his West Bank town.

'There were some buses which came here but most people did not come. In the rest of the West Bank people do not yet believe in the peace, because they haven't seen it there yet.'

The first meeting of the PNA was not a grand occasion to inspire confidence in Palestinian 'state building'. Only 12 of the 24 members of the authority attended the swearing-in ceremony, conducted by Mr Arafat.

Two months after the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement, Mr Arafat has failed to select ministers to fill five portfolios. For reasons which were not clear, Ahmed Qrei (Abu Ala), chief economic adviser and architect of the Oslo accord, was not present at this historic occasion. In a surprise development, the swearing-in of Faisal Husseini, de facto PLO leader in Jerusalem, due to become minister without portfolio, was deferred and may have been annulled altogether, apparently due to an internal dispute.

Among key figures who were sworn in were Nabil Shaath as Minister for Planning and International Co-operation, Intisar Wazir, widow of Abu Jihad, the assassinated PLO leader, as Minister of Social Affairs, and Mohammed Nashashibi as Minister of Finance.

At a press conference after the meeting, Mr Shaath announced that the ministers had agreed to press Israel to extend Palestinian self-rule throughout the West Bank. He said that several new committees had been set up to examine such issues as job creation and housing.

The subject which dominated the PNA meeting, however, was the new authority's lack of money. Mr Arafat's first home-coming would have been more successful and his pledge to build a state more credible if donor funds had already started to flow. In fact, the PNA still has little money in the bank, a subject which is certain to be raised in Paris when Mr Arafat meets Mr Rabin.

JERUSALEM - Tawfik Ziad, mayor of the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth and a leading Israeli-Arab legislator, was killed yesterday in a head-on collision while returning from Jericho where he welcomed Yasser Arafat, AP reports. He was 65.