Celebration over, Arafat gets down to task at hand

July 06, 1994|By Dan Fesperman and Doug Struck | Dan Fesperman and Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERICHO, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat moved beyond celebrations and sentimental journeys yesterday to swear in his government and get down to the business of running the Palestinian territory. Already his agenda looks full.

Mr. Arafat met with his new Cabinet to review plans to create jobs and build new housing in the impoverished Gaza Strip. Today, he ends his historic return to Palestinian territories and goes to Paris, where he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to discuss ways to expand the territory under Palestinian governance.

In the past few days, the Paris meeting has grown into a full-blown summit where the peace talks could gain momentum, said Nabil Shaath, the minister of planning. The chief topic is likely to be the timetable for further releases of Palestinian prisoners and further Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank. The Israeli army is to be withdrawn from populated Arab areas by October,under the pending agreement.

Speaking at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Shaath called the government's first actions on jobs and housing "historic," saying, "They provide the impetus and the incentive for quick building, and for continuation of the peace process."

The moves also reflect popular sentiment among Palestinians -- hardly surprising considering that the first elections may be only three months away. A recent poll of the more than 800,000 Palestinians in Jericho and the Gaza Strip showed that the economy and high unemployment are the top issues.

Mr. Shaath said the government hopes to create up to 25,000 jobs during the next year by cleaning up Gaza's heaps of garbage and by beginning construction of up to 30,000 new homes.

Those are just the sorts of programs that many residents say they wanted to hear about.

"What we need most are jobs," said Mazin Darweesh, an unemployed man who drove to Jericho from the West Bank town of Jenin in hopes of seeing Mr. Arafat's arrival. "There is no work now for anyone."

Mr. Arafat's government addressed another popular and emotional issue by deciding that Palestinian prisoners recently released by Israel would receive salaries until jobs could be found for them.

A new government

At the swearing-in ceremony for the new government, 13 members of the new Palestinian National Authority took the oath office. They will serve until Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank elect a new 24-member council.

The Rev. George Makhluf, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church of Ramallah, provided a gold-leaf Bible for the oath of the only Christian member of the Cabinet, Elias Freij, who will be the minister of tourism.

One of the more conspicuous members of Mr. Arafat's government will be Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, a member of a small, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that opposes the foundation of the state of Israel as an impediment to the return of the Messiah.

Rabbi Hirsch will be Mr. Arafat's minister of Jewish affairs, perhaps the only member of the Palestinian Cabinet who still disputes the existence of Israel and the only one who does not speak Arabic. He did not take an oath of office, however, because Jews do not swear oaths.

Faisal al-Husseini, another person named earlier to Mr. Arafat's Cabinet, also did not take an oath of office yesterday. Israeli television reported that it was because Israeli officials have warned him that he must first give up his position as head of the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem.

Repeated themes

The day began with a speech by Mr. Arafat to an unruly crowd of about 5,000, mostly young men and boys, gathered on the outskirts of Jericho.

Mr. Arafat repeated the themes that he has stressed since arriving in Gaza on Friday, calling for unity among feuding Palestinian factions and vowing that his effort for his people "will continue until we set up a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

Police set up rows of chain-link fence to protect Mr. Arafat from his enthusiastic admirers, but shortly after he arrived they trampled both barriers, swarming to the edge of the stage. Nervous security men surrounded Mr. Arafat several times as the crowd surged, and sometimes only his checkered headgear was visible. He was still rasping, having lost his voice the day before.

In spite of the crowd's enthusiasm, it was far smaller than had been expected, as was often the case during Mr. Arafat's five-day visit. Palestinian authorities had predicted that hundreds thousands would travel to the town from all over the occupied West Bank.

Part of the problem yesterday may have been the oppressive heat. Another may have been the fear and disruption caused by Israeli settlers, who yesterday followed through on their promise to try to block highways leading to Jericho.

In his speech, Mr. Arafat accused Israeli authorities of blocking Palestinians from coming. The Israeli police and army denied the accusation and insisted that they were diligent in keeping roads open.

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