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
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor