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Mandela Shares Memories With Arafat

October 20, 1999

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat greeted each other Tuesday as old friends do, hugging, talking over old times and calling in some favors.

The trip to the Gaza Strip was the last stop on the recently-retired South African president’s Mideast tour, and it was his most effusive reception.

Greeting Mandela at the airport, the Palestinian leader kissed him on the forehead. He held his hand as a bagpipe band played national anthems and led him in a motorcade past streets full of dancing and singing Palestinians.

``The relationship between President Arafat and President Mandela goes way back. It is no secret that there was a relationship of common resistance between the Palestinians and the ANC,″ Arafat adviser Nabil Abourdeineh said, referring to the African National Congress resistance movement that Mandela led from a prison cell.

In the 1970s, Mandela and the ANC forged ties with other radical movements struggling for self-determination, including Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

For Israelis, Mandela’s visit to the Jewish state, which ended earlier Monday, was an important sign of reconciliation.

Israel had pressed the Nobel peace laureate to visit for years, trying to recover from its support for the white-supremacist apartheid regime that led South Africa until Mandela’s 1994 election in the country’s first all-race election.

Mandela felt the time was right, now that the Mideast peace process has been revived by a newly elected moderate government headed by Ehud Barak.

``We are very proud this man has visited us,″ Foreign Minister David Levy said just minutes before Mandela flew from Jerusalem to Gaza.

Despite the warm words, Mandela did not stint on prodding Israel to hand the entire West Bank to the Palestinians.

``Israel must be prepared to pay the price of peace,″ Mandela said. ``They must withdraw from lands won from Arabs in the ’67 war.″

Such declarations delighted the Palestinians.

``This visit holds a lot of meaning,′ said Nabil Amr, an Arafat adviser. ``This is Nelson Mandela in Palestine. This was a man who was able to see his homeland freed under hard and difficult circumstances, just like the circumstances that we are living. He said what must be said and that is, peace requires full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas.″

Still, Mandela didn’t alter his message for his audience. Just as he unequivocally told Israeli leaders they must withdraw from Arab lands, he told Arafat, ``the Arab leaders must make an unequivocal statement that they recognize the existence of Israel with secure borders″ before Israel withdraws.

Some Palestinians resist recognizing Israel’s pre-1967 borders, claiming a moral right to return to lands lost in the 1948 Israel independence war.

Arafat responded to Mandela with nothing but warmth.

``We are honored to welcome the leader of all liberation and resistance movements in the world,″ he said. ``We are honored to have him among us in Palestine, with its capital, holy Jerusalem. We spoke about the peace process and the means to protect it and move it forward.″

Long treated as pariahs in the West, and even among fellow Arabs, Palestinians have cherished the support of a man who became a symbol of freedom.

Reminders of the affinity were plentiful Tuesday. ``Palestine is also an African cause,″ one banner said. ``We have a common dream _ a free land″ read the caption of a poster of Arafat and Mandela shaking hands.

Mandela said he watched Arafat closely during his darkest hour, the Lebanon war in 1982, when Israeli forces reached Beirut and forced him out of what had been a stronghold.

``When I was in jail I was impressed with how he led a situation while being under attack in Lebanon,″ he said, calling Arafat ``my leader.″

``We thought it was the end but he was able to save all his men. The fact that he opened discussions with Israel showed his caliber of courage,″ he said.

Mandela, 81 and suffering from a recent knee injury, canceled a hotel reception, saying he needed to rest.

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