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.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'