PLO chief returns to a subdued welcome

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The Independent Online
A SUDDEN flash of black and white among the sea of berets at last proved to the Palestinians of Gaza yesterday that Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, had come home.

Nine months after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in Washington, Mr Arafat crossed on to Palestinian soil and then sped away in a cloud of dust across the Gaza Strip to greet the 'children of the stones, the heroes of the stones', amid scenes of mayhem in Gaza's central square.

'We are here in Gaza on our way to the Temple Mount,' he told the crowds, pledging to claim for them the ultimate prize - a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

This day, 1 July 1994, was one all Palestinians had been waiting for and they turned out in their tens of thousands, to see, to hear and to try to touch him. But the greatest homecoming in Palestinian history did not, in the end, move the people as profoundly as many had predicted. Palestinians are cautious about what Mr Arafat's peace might bring and Mr Arafat himself knew that his tour through Gaza could not be one of triumph.

Israel mounted a massive security operation in Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza after threats by Jewish settlers and Palestinian extremists to assassinate Mr Arafat. But despite protests in Jerusalem the homecoming was relatively calm.

It began in the searing heat on a desolate piece of Gaza sand. Waiting for the chairman a small number of selected dignatories and diplomats perspired under swiftly erected awnings as plastic Arafat posters curled in the sun. Some in the crowd knelt for morning prayer while others spoke of their hopes for Mr Arafat.

'It is a dream I have always had. But Mr Arafat must now talk to the people, reassure them and give them their rights,' said Sami abu Samhandani, who spent 11 years in an Israeli jail. 'We were not just fighting for this day, we were fighting for our freedom.' Refugees said they hoped Mr Arafat would now win the right for them to return to their homes in Israel.

At 3.15pm precisely a black Mercedes pulled across the border. Mr Arafat emerged, circled momentarily by a shield of gun barrels, and then, afraid perhaps of an executioner in the swirling crowds, he was gone. Without so much as a word of greeting to the crowd under the awning.

As the convoy sped north Mr Arafat saw for the first time the squalid refugee camps where the Palestinian intifada erupted in 1987, he saw the flocks of children, many of whom manned the intifada front line with stones in their hand. He saw his fighters who have laid down their weapons or joined the Palestinian police.

He also saw the Israeli army camps which are still on land he once had hoped would be his. The massive Jewish settlement blocks of Gush Katis were visible from the road where 5,000 Jewish settlers insist that Mr Arafat's Palestine is the Holy Land of Israel. 'Arafat the murderer' said a sign hung by settlers outside Kfar Dorom, where many settlers had declared themselves ready to kill the Palestinians' returning hero. Their threats forced a change of route and Mr Arafat found himself worming through the cornfields.

It was in Gaza City, stronghold of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, where Mr Arafat's support faced its strongest test. In a clear bid to win over Islamic opponents, Mr Arafat saluted Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas who sits today in an Israeli jail. 'In the name of Allah we are bringing victory to the believers,' said Mr Arafat. As a cacophony of hooters and cheers filled the street, the first stage of Mr Arafat's homecoming soon drew to a close. The people were quick to disperse. A schoolboy, Khaled Abu Eida, said as he headed for home: 'We just came to see. We just wanted to believe and see that he was real.'

Mr Arafat will visit the West Bank self-rule enclave of Jericho during his current visit but not Jerusalem, his adviser, Nabil Shaath, told reporters yesterday.