Tired Arafat's fading glory

Robert Fisk reports from Gaza as the PLO's ageing leader salutes almost everyone at his birthday party
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The Independent Online
"By the blood of our martyrs, take your cars away from the race- track," the man in the white shirt screamed. "Take away your cars or we will burn them. Abu Ammar is coming."

In the old days, Palestinians were asked to perform supposedly stirring deeds for the blood of their martyrs.

But the dead of the Palestinian revolution had hitherto never been summoned to sort out a parking problem. It was Yasser Arafat's birthday.

The old man was 66 yesterday and they had laid on a party for him at the beach race-track complete with a flurry of Arab steeds ridden by members of the Palestinian Society of Equitation, of which President Arafat of Palestine - as he is wont to be called these days - also happens to be the honorary secretary. And when he came, preceded by blue police cars and Jeep-loads of gunmen, soldiers and security men, it has to be said that the chairman of the PLO looked his age.

He was tired, very tired, his eyes puffy from lack of sleep - the angry meetings of the Palestinian Authority now drag on till dawn. His old generals and colonels, in their faded uniforms with their eagles and crossed swords on equally faded epaulettes, looked like men of the past. About the only fit creatures present were the horses that pranced past the PLO leader as he sat on an armchair beneath an awning and stared out across the Mediterranean. He did try to look happy.

He embraced children, kissing a girl four times on the cheek, a little boy in a military uniform five times on the cheek and once on the hand. He had already opened the new children's park named after his 11-day-old baby daughter, Zahwa - the Amusement Park of Palestine's Zahwa, it is called - and has created a children's zoo with a slightly mangy lion for the entertainment of Palestinian youth.

And when the Palestinian boy scouts trooped past him yesterday, he was on his feet saluting them. He saluted the girl guides, too. He saluted the Palestinian Kung Fu society. He saluted a child acrobat.

And when a rider persuaded his horse to kneel before the President of Palestine, Mr Arafat leapt to his feet and saluted that too. Was he a happy man with his elections, his final settlement, his claim to Jerusalem so far away that many Palestinians believe they are dreams? He laughed and grinned his way through a musical performance of dabke dancers and actors who rhetorically discussed the difficulties of the "peace process".

"We have Gaza and Jericho because of your presence," they chorused confidently. "Jerusalem will come back to us with Abu Ammar's efforts," they went on. "Do we want to sell this land?" one actor asked. His colleague replied: "I will not forget Jerusalem or Haifa or Bisan." The crowd roared because half of Jerusalem and all of Haifa and Bisan are in present-day Israel, not in Gaza or the West Bank.

At the end the actors embraced, old friends who disagreed about the peace but would never fight each other. Mr Arafat clapped and laughed. Ah yes, if only it were that easy, if only there were no need for the midnight security courts and the 25-year prison sentences and the after- dark arrests. But he was cheered by a large group of young Palestinians who chanted: "All the people are with Abu Ammar."

Then the President of Palestine opened the races while his men handed out baskets of sweet wafers to the hundreds of sheikhs and family leaders who sat beneath the awning. The old man gave his people bread and circuses to mark his birthday.