Arafat deals blow to Jericho's pride

July 05, 1994|By Doug Struck and Dan Fesperman | Doug Struck and Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- Yasser Arafat will base his Palestinian government in tiny Jericho, but the tumult of the crowded Gaza Strip will be home.

Mr. Arafat was set to swear in the Palestinian National Authority formally in Jericho today and then fly to Paris. But he will return fTC to Gaza next weekend to take up residence, according to aide Nabil Shaath.

"Gaza is the reality. Jericho is the symbol," Mr. Shaath told Israel radio yesterday. "People don't live in symbols, they live with the people. And the people are here."

The pronouncement is a blow to the pride of Jericho, the West Bank town of 30,000 lying below sea level beside the Jordanian border. In the 11 months since the signing of the agreement to begin Palestinian autonomy in Jericho and the Gaza Strip, a chief source of recreation in languid Jericho has been speculating on what house will be Mr. Arafat's.

Instead, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization yesterday inspected the old Governor's House in Gaza. The dowdy two-story building was used by the Egyptian military governor before Israel captured the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six Day War, and some of the spacious grounds accommodated a prison used by Israelis to confine Palestinians.

Mr. Arafat did his house-hunting on the fourth day of his first visit to Palestinian territories in 27 years.

The chairman stalked quickly around the house and left after about three minutes, saying nothing to journalists. But Jericho will be -- temporarily, at least -- the seat of government for the first government for the Palestinians in modern times. Mr. Arafat has appointed members of the Palestinian National Authority, with himself as president.

From offices in Jericho, the authority is to run the affairs of nearly 1 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho until a new authority is elected in three months. At the time of the elections, Israel is to redeploy troops from Arab areas in the rest of the West Bank, and the elected council will expand its authority, according to the agreement Israel signed in September.

Mr. Arafat was to arrive in Jericho this morning by helicopter, allowing him to avoid demonstrations planned by Israeli right-wing groups, who vowed to block the highway to Jericho. An Israeli military helicopter was to accompany Mr. Arafat's aircraft for the 70-mile trip.

By late afternoon yesterday, with the heat easing in the long shadows of Jericho, the central square where Mr. Arafat will speak had taken on a festive mood in anticipation of the arrival of the Palestinian leader.

Young boys gathered and milled in large groups. Cars cruised the square with Arafat posters plastered to the doors and patriotic anthems blaring from their speakers. Vendors of falafel and roasted nuts took up early positions beneath palm trees and stringers of Palestinian flags, and welders put the finishing touches on spindly metal stands built for news photographers.

Overseeing it all from surrounding rooftops were television camera crews, staked out like sentinels with their cellular telephones and giant satellite dishes.

"We are all waiting for him," said Mazen Darweesh, who drove 30 miles to spend the night in Jericho when he heard Mr. Arafat was due. "He is the father of the Palestinian people."

By late in the day it was apparent that others were making a similar pilgrimage to Jericho. Cars from out of town and taxis in from the Jordanian border arrived with their rooftops piled high with luggage.

Palestinian police sealed the entrance to the town from Jerusalem at 7 p.m., one of only three roads leading into town, and began clamping down on security.

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