Waiting for Arafat to understand his role: Delight at the return of the PLO leader is mingled with concern about the future, Robert Fisk writes from Gaza

ON THE steps of the Rashad Shawaa Cultural Centre, they had been waiting for Yasser Arafat for three hours. Not to meet him, just to glimpse the man who was still half-myth, familiar only from the bewhiskered features of old photographs and crude wall paintings. They chewed nuts, read the Israeli-censored newspapers that had just arrived from Jerusalem and watched an old man arguing with a brown-uniformed Palestinian policeman.

Mr Arafat may have been on his way but the elderly man, white hair flying in the hot breeze wafting up Omar Mukhtar Street, was demanding to drive his van across the road. No, said the young policeman, 'Abu Ammar' was coming and traffic was banned. On the rooftop opposite, two Palestinian snipers sipped orange juice beneath a sunshade, idly watching the little act of street politics below them. Was this a democracy or not, the old man shouted? Why should he, a Gazan, be stopped by a Palestinian who had arrived from Egypt?

An officer stepped forward, took the man's driving licence and told him to turn his van around which he did, with ill grace. The licence was returned, the old man ordered to leave. In Gaza, you don't get in the way of Yasser Arafat. But the crowd on the steps of the cultural centre made jokes about the old man. Some people, one of them said, didn't recognise history. 'Everyone is happy to see Arafat - even Hamas,' one of them announced, although the Islamic guerrilla movement has been strangely - perhaps ominously - silent since Palestine's 'president' arrived in Gaza.

And there was something unreal about Mr Arafat's appearance when he eventually drove up Omar Mukhtar street. He was preceded by truckloads of soldiers, plainclothes gunmen, a van full of photographers and an ambulance -just in case a would-be assassin finally got the better of him. But when we saw Mr Arafat, standing up through the roof of his black armoured Mercedes, he was a curiously mechanical figure.

His right hand, waving daintily to left and right, seemed tiny, his smile fixed, his head turning as if on a swivel, towards the snipers, towards us on the steps, back to the other side of the street. The eyes were very small. There was something waxworks about him, as if we had just seen a Madame Tussauds impression.

'He is getting used to being our president,' another Palestinian said. If he was, he should have stopped at the cultural centre instead of driving past. For inside its doors, Clayman Myers of the World Bank was lecturing to a group of young Palestinian businessmen from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, preparing their seminars on project management, computers, business studies. Neither Mr Myers nor his earnest students had the time to stand on the steps with us, gawping at Arafat; Mr Myers had work to do, teaching the construction engineers about 'economics in transition', about joint commercial projects and private sector contracts. Gaza, he said, was experiencing a 'great leap forward.'

It was a phrase that the old revolutionary in the keffiyeh might have misinterpreted. One of the Palestinians in the cultural centre explained it rather well outside Mr Myers' lecture. 'Arafat announces that he rejects the World Bank's conditions for funding because he doesn't want accountability,' he said. 'But he's got to have accountability now. He's got to keep records because he's no longer running a guerrilla army, he's running a country. He must learn this. You know people here are worried. They are already saying 'we must have democracy' - and what they mean is 'are we going to have a democracy?' They say 'we must have elections' and what they mean is 'maybe there won't be elections'. For the moment, Hamas and Arafat's supporters still get on here - they co- operate in the cultural centre. But I don't think this is going to last. Things will get difficult unless this man understands his role.'