- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

From combined dispatches
JENIN, West Bank Yasser Arafat, hailed as a hero by Palestinians during his five-month confinement in Ramallah, canceled a visit yesterday to the Jenin refugee camp at the last minute because his aides feared a hostile reception from an unruly crowd.
The site of the fiercest fighting between Israel and the Palestinians last month had been prepared for a speech by Mr. Arafat, with a makeshift stage and 3,000 people waiting among the rubble to hear him speak.
But instead of chanting Mr. Arafat's name, the crowds chanted that of Mahmoud Tawalbeh, leader of the Iranian-backed extremist organization Islamic Jihad, who died fighting Israeli troops during the battle.
With aides holding both his arms, the Palestinian leader stepped gingerly onto the rubble at the edge of the camp but turned and departed without approaching the crowd.
"I'm very angry and very disappointed because Arafat did not visit the camp," said 43-year-old Mohammed Abu Ghalyoun. "He didn't talk to normal people. He didn't want to meet the people who lost their sons. If he isn't interested in us, we are not interested in him."
Palestinian security officials canceled the visit to the refugee camp, citing problems of crowd control and the difficulties of moving the aging leader into the inaccessible rubble.
Jamal Shatti, the Palestinian deputy for Jenin, said the visit was canceled because of the "disorder" in the camp.
Residents of the camp felt abandoned in the early April battle and some of them burned the makeshift stage overnight, locals said, forcing workers to put up a new one early yesterday.
In his first trip outside Ramallah, Mr. Arafat visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the scene of a five-week Israeli siege, Nablus and Jenin city.
He viewed the damage to the Jenin camp from a Jordanian helicopter.
In Jenin, he spoke at the city's town hall.
"People of Jenin, all the citizens of Jenin and the refugee camp, this is Jenin-grad," he said in a reference to the World War II battle of Stalingrad. "Your battle has paved the way to the liberation of the occupied territories."
Until yesterday, Mr. Arafat had not left the West Bank city of Ramallah since December, and for much of that time he faced Israeli travel restrictions.
The siege appeared to boost his popularity, with many Palestinians viewing the Israeli actions against him as part of a larger attempt to dismantle the Palestinian leadership and undermine aspirations for statehood.
On May 2, Mr. Arafat until then confined by Israeli tanks to a few rooms in his headquarters regained his freedom by agreeing to place six wanted Palestinians under U.S. and British supervision.
And last week, he agreed to Israel's demand to send 13 wanted militants into exile and 26 others from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, ending a 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Mr. Arafat faced tremendous pressure from Israel and the United States to make the deals, but it has produced grumbling among some Palestinians.
"All the people in the camp supported Arafat when he was under the siege in his compound in Ramallah," said Mohammed Damaj, a 34-year-old resident of the refugee camp and an activist in Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement.
Mr. Damaj said some Palestinians were disappointed that Mr. Arafat did not press harder for a U.N. inquiry into the fighting at Jenin.
"Arafat was silent about that. The people in the camp felt that Arafat sacrificed them for his personal interests," Mr. Damaj said.
The crowd, which broke into cheers several times when it was announced that Mr. Arafat was on his way, later shifted to chants of "To Jerusalem we go, martyrs in the millions," echoing a phrase Mr. Arafat made popular during his confinement in Ramallah.
Mr. Arafat's trip to Jenin was also marred by a gunfight between two members of his Fatah movement. After an argument, one shot the other in the leg, sending the crowd fleeing in panic.
Palestinian leaders initially said hundreds were killed in the Jenin camp in what they described as a massacre by Israeli troops. Israel countered that the Palestinian assertions were wild exaggerations, saying about 50 Palestinians were killed in the camp, most of them fighters.
International human rights groups accused the Israeli military of abuses but backed Israel's assertion that no massacre took place.
Israeli troops were gone from Palestinian cities yesterday for the first time in six weeks, and the level of bloodshed has declined in recent days.
Yet Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are now dealing with the fallout from the violence of the preceding weeks, which included a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli incursions into the West Bank in search of militants.
Mr. Sharon suffered a public defeat early yesterday when his hard-line Likud party ignored his pleas and voted overwhelmingly to oppose Palestinian statehood.
Mr. Sharon, who says a Palestinian state is likely to emerge someday, asked his party not to vote on the resolution but lost in a ballot. The action does not prevent Mr. Sharon from formally pursuing negotiations that might lead to Palestinian statehood, it but does show that he will face tough going within his own party.
In Bethlehem, Mr. Arafat visited the Church of the Nativity, walking arm in arm with Christian clergy. He was surrounded by Palestinian security guards, who carried their automatic rifles into the church.
Mr. Arafat walked through the basilica and descended a few steps into a grotto where many Christians believe Jesus was born.
"This place will be always and forever inside our hearts, minds and beliefs," he said.
On Sunday, worshippers returned to the church for the first services since the siege began there April 2.
In Mr. Arafat's final stop in Nablus, he received a warm greeting from 300 people who chanted, "We sacrifice our blood and our soul for Arafat."


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