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Arafat Has Huge Political Stake

October 29, 1998

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Yasser Arafat came home to a hero’s welcome Wednesday, with cheering crowds lining his motorcade’s route, a snappy honor-guard salute and a special song of tribute played over and over on official Palestinian radio.

Now it’s time for him to truly face the music.

Arafat, who waited nearly a week after the signing of the new peace accord in Washington to return to the Palestinian lands, is embarking on a high-stakes, high-risk effort to turn the pact’s provisions into reality.

If he succeeds, even the interim measures envisioned under the accord could go a long way toward easing pent-up Palestinian fury.

That’s especially true in the Gaza Strip, where many of those who turned out to see Arafat arrive were almost giddy over the prospect of a working international airport, a seaport and a so-called ``safe passage″ that would allow them to travel to the West Bank _ all part of the new agreement.

``That’s what peace would mean to me _ being able to come and go as if we lived in a normal country,″ said 55-year-old schoolmaster Suleiman Hasan, waiting under a broiling sun in the border town of Rafah to see the Palestinian leader’s motorcade whoosh past.

Arafat’s route from the Egyptian frontier to his Gaza City headquarters took him the length of Gaza, past ramshackle refugee camps and red-roofed Jewish settlements in the distance. All along the way, people gathered at the roadside to wave and cheer as he passed.

Village elders sat waiting in rows, young men smoked water pipes and sipped coffee, and veiled women paused to look, balancing big bundles on their heads.

While potential Palestinian gains from the accord are great, so are the pitfalls. If the two sides fall to squabbling over implementing the accord, despair could quickly reach critical proportions in poor, crowded, angry Gaza.

Hamas, the radical Islamic group that opposes any peace with Israel, has a stronger following here than elsewhere.

Already, there were potential snags. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indefinitely postponed a Cabinet meeting to approve the accord, the Clinton administration urged both sides to start moving next week to implement the agreement.

Arafat was upbeat when asked whether the postponement spelled trouble.

``No, I think that what has been signed will be implemented accurately,″ he told reporters.

As he has been since the accord’s signing, Arafat was careful to characterize it as a step toward Palestinian statehood _ while at the same time reserving the option of a unilateral statehood declaration if the agreement fails.

``No doubt,″ he said quickly when asked whether Palestinians are closer now to their goal of statehood.

For the Palestinians, internal divisions are likely to intensify as some of the pact’s thornier provisions are put into force. Particularly difficult will be steps like seizing illegal weaponry, cutting the size of Palestinian security forces and halting incitement against Israel.

In Arafat’s absence, some of his supporters turned on one another. In the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians marched Wednesday in the funeral procession of a 16-year-old boy shot dead in a confrontation over rivalry between Arafat’s Fatah political faction and Palestinian military intelligence agents.

Despite Arafat’s domestic political troubles and their own worsening plight, most Palestinians feel there is little option but to have him stay on the peace course. The welcome-home he got in Gaza _ his biggest in years _ was highly orchestrated, but nonetheless heartfelt.

Watchers _ especially the young _ said they hoped for the best from the accord.

``We want to go to the university, have good jobs _ we need peace to do these things,″ said Saeb Kandril, an earnest 16-year-old with a wispy mustache.

Mukhtal al-Arjah, a 71-year-old Bedouin with a weathered face and traditional headdress waited on horseback by the roadside. Leaning over, he said he was there because it was important to show respect for a leader at a time of triumph _ or crisis.

``We’ll see which this will be,″ he said.

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