Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gaza and Jericho: Yasser Arafat's Return; New Beginning for Palestine

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Gaza and Jericho: Yasser Arafat's Return; New Beginning for Palestine

Article excerpt

Gaza and Jericho: Yasser Arafat's Return; New Beginning for Palestine

By Stephen J. Sosebee

When Yasser Arafat first stepped on Palestinian soil at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on July 1 it marked an historic point in Palestinian history. For the first time in 27 years the PLO leader returned to the homeland he devoted his life to regaining for the Palestinian people. While there are serious questions whether he has actually regained anything in the Oslo Accords, there is no doubt that the Palestine question has entered a new, more complex phase.

Huge celebrations broke out in Gaza when the Old Man, as he is affectionately known here, cleared a path through jubilant PLO soldiers to make the first step of his return to Palestine a memorable one. "Only two months ago we were under the black days of occupation," said Rafah resident Yusef Hamdan. "I never thought I'd have the chance to see our leader returning to his homeland."

It is fitting that Arafat first returned to the Gaza Strip. It is in this narrow coastal plain that 750,000 Palestinians waged a bloody seven-year uprising that forced Israel to make political concessions. "It is not because he is Arafat, but a symbol of what we have struggled for," explained Ahmed Abu Sitta as he waited in the hot sun for the PLO leader to arrive. "Arafat is Palestine."

Such statements echoed the sentiments of many who greeted the Palestinian president on July 1. Even many opposed to the Oslo Accords welcomed the return of the man who was leading the Palestine Liberation Organization's struggle for Palestine before 75 percent of the Gazans were even born.

Yet Arafat's arrival in Gaza was predictably flawed from the onset. There was no schedule, security was overwhelming, and the overall program seemed to have been put together without any one person in charge. There was the worry that Arafat would not recognize the contribution of the Gazans in making his return possible. "I fear those who suffered in the intifada will be ignored now that the leaders from the outside are coming back," said Ehab al-Sheikh, a young Fatah Hawk who is paralyzed after being shot last August by Israeli undercover units. "If this happens, there will be a great loss of support for the PLO among the people here."

On the historic first day, Arafat was expected first to greet the large delegation of notables who awaited him at the Rafah border. Journalists, diplomats, leading churchmen, West Bank leaders, an Israeli Arab delegation and thousands of Gazans waited for hours in the sun, only to see Arafat wave briefly in their direction, get in a limousine and abruptly leave for Gaza City. He gave no speech, shook no hands and caused panic among many reporters who had come to cover the story of a lifetime. "We were stunned," said Jan Keulen, a Dutch journalist who covered Arafat for years in Lebanon and Tunis. "All of that waiting for nothing made people very upset."

In Gaza, thousands waited in the sun for Arafat's delegation, which included Intisar Al Wazir, wife of popular PLO leader Khalil Al Wazir (Abu Jihad), assassinated by an Israeli hit squad in Tunis. Others present were Hanan Ashrawi, Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, and Nabil Shaath. Putting Ashrawi and Abdel Shafi, both of whom had been critical of the Oslo Accords and the style of Arafat's leadership, on stage with Arafat was an effort to enhance the image of unity among the returning PLO loyalists and the West Bank and Gaza leadership. Unity is a theme Arafat articulated in his speeches throughout the Gaza Strip and in Jericho.

By the time Arafat mounted the stage in Gaza City, the streets were clogged with tens of thousands of celebrating people. Hundreds of Palestinian police and soldiers milled about, exuberant despite the heat.

"Most of us fought in Lebanon and spent years waiting in exile," Captain Musa Khalid explained at the rally. "Arafat's return to Palestine is a great feeling for us all. …

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