Arafat says his survival a victory for Palestinians

Makes tour of Ramallah, faces internal challenges

May 03, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - He looked tired but sounded triumphant, seeing the sunlight after 34 days under siege, and his first stop was at a hospital, to exhort wounded fighters to be strong and recover soon.

The Israeli army gone, the siege of his ruined headquarters over, Yasser Arafat was back in public view yesterday and proclaiming his survival a victory for the Palestinian people. He toured the ruins of the Education Ministry, the wreckage of the parliament building, a ransacked cultural center and then a Protestant convent, before returning to the cheering crowd awaiting him outside his compound.

Standing on the floorboard of a borrowed black Mercedes, flanked by green-camouflaged security officers waving assault rifles in the air, he joined hundreds of supporters making victory signs with their hands, and singing, "Our souls, our blood is for Palestine."

Helped by aides, 72-year-old Arafat then climbed a short flight of stairs and disappeared inside the compound, ate a lunch of rice, yogurt and pita bread and retired for a nap.

Much work ahead

This first day was festive and easy, but the Palestinian leader, whom Israel has branded an enemy, will have to begin rebuilding a government and an infrastructure crippled by the Israeli army.

To prevent more Israeli military action, he will have to rein in extremist groups such as Hamas, which vowed yesterday to launch a new wave of suicide attacks within days.

To satisfy the United States, he will have to resume talks with Israel leading to a formal cease-fire and an eventual peace settlement.

He faces many internal challenges. Even as residents poured into the streets to greet him, some privately complained that he had sold out by turning over six men wanted by Israel to American and British jailers in order to win his freedom.

"This is not victory," said a 23-year-old Palestinian policeman, recovering from three bullet wounds at Ramallah Government Hospital, speaking after shaking Arafat's hand. "Victory is when we have our own land and we can move freely. I feel like I fought for nothing."

Arafat's first outing since Israeli troops pulled back Wednesday night lacked the trappings of power. His motorcade was a mix of borrowed vehicles; his own fleet of black Mercedes and Range Rovers had been crushed by the Israelis, who turned his garage into an auto junkyard.

Led by one of the few Palestinian police cars that remained intact, his entourage weaved around dirt mounds that soldiers erected as road blocks, and around crumpled cars turned into barricades and piles of trash.

Even under a bright morning sun, the cars kicked up so much dust that drivers had to turn on their headlights to be seen.

Just the same, Arafat played to perfection the role of politician. He waved to children, plastered over bullet holes on a police station wall and prayed over the graves of combatants buried in a hospital parking lot.

"The more destruction I see, the stronger I get," Arafat told reporters who engulfed him at every stop.

Recalling stories of past

This was a day of celebration, and not a time to move beyond the conflict's rhetoric, or look ahead at the difficult future. Pressed time and again for new ideas, Arafat retreated to stories about past battles and old enemies reborn in the present conflict.

Arafat noted that he has now twice escaped confinement imposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - two decades ago in Beirut and yesterday in Ramallah.

He called the fierce battle in the Jenin refugee camp "Jeningrad," and compared it to massacres committed at camps in Lebanon by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied with Israel.

And he retreated to slogans that endear him to the Palestinian street but worry Israelis and officials abroad. At the Anglican Church, he smiled as throngs of children dressed in blue uniforms sang, "We're marching to Jerusalem, martyrs in the millions."

Outside Arafat's presidential compound, crowds gathered to celebrate and to gaze at the damage to a complex they regard as the Palestinian White House. Few buildings were unscathed.

Tanks had punctured the walls of the secret police offices, and heavy artillery fire left a straight line of scars the length of the block-long building.

Arafat had been confined to a few small rooms of a newer building in the complex, used for news conferences and meetings with foreign dignitaries. It was one of the few buildings whose windows remained intact.

Israeli troops had not merely surrounded the compound, but fought their way inside and engaged in room-to-room fighting with Palestinians. In one spot, Palestinian gunmen huddled in a skywalk, while 30 feet away, in another smaller office building, Israeli soldiers knelt beneath windows. The two sides shot at each other nearly every day.

Allam Omar, 29, a security officer wounded during one of the firefights, said the two sides were close enough to exchange vulgar comments. One Israeli soldier, he said, shouted, "Just leave this place."

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