- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank Yasser Arafat spent his first day of freedom mobbed by well-wishers as he visited the graves and hospital bedsides of Palestinian casualties of fighting with Israeli soldiers on the West Bank.
Surrounded by security men, jostled by supporters and trailed by reporters, Mr. Arafat toured his de facto capital, taking in the shattered infrastructure and pent-up anger from the 35-day siege that ended Wednesday.
Exhausted, trembling and looking small beneath his trademark peaked kaffiyeh, Mr. Arafat toured the ransacked Ministry of Education and symbolically spread plaster over the bullet-scarred wall of a Ramallah police station.
"The more destruction I see, the stronger I get," Mr. Arafat said.
Aides said he plans to spend the coming days touring the West Bank and viewing the ravages of Israel's incursion into Palestinian territory, which has not yet ended.
Amid the jubilation surrounding the Palestinian leader's release, the standoff continued at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, seized by Palestinian gunmen who have barricaded themselves inside.
Israeli forces opened fire on three Palestinians as they attempted to leave the church compound, killing one and sending two scrambling back inside.
Israeli troops continued to surround the church, where an early morning fire in the compound damaged offices and a dormitory but left the basilica, sacred to Catholics and many other Christians, unharmed.
The Palestinians said the fire in the Franciscan parish hall and offices was sparked by Israeli flares or triggered when soldiers tried to storm the ancient compound. The Israelis, who hold overwhelming military advantage, say they made no attempt to invade the church and that the blaze was likely set by the gunmen inside, who have booby-trapped the church's doors.
The monthlong stalemate at the church, built on the site where many Christians believe that Christ was born, has infuriated many religious and political figures. In a statement from their Rome office, the Franciscans, a Roman Catholic order, said they hold Israelis and Palestinians equally responsible for "this continuing, intolerable and increasingly dangerous situation." The Vatican sent an envoy to Jerusalem to spur negotiations.
An emotional Mr. Arafat castigated the Israelis in repeated interviews, calling them "terrorists, Nazis and racists." He assailed foreign powers for allowing them to deliberately desecrate the church his gunmen seized.
"It's an ugly crime," Mr. Arafat said in an interview with CNN. "I call on the international community to take immediate measures in the face of this horrendous crime. Those terrorists, Nazis and racists how can we tolerate them after committing this crime?"
The White House chided Mr. Arafat for the remark.
President Bush "thinks the important step for all three parties is to now ask themselves what can they do to bring peace to the region, not what can they do to speak ill of others," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who stressed the need for continued negotiations to end the impasse.
Mr. Arafat was hailed as a hero in the Palestinian territories.
In Ramallah, crowds surged through the streets toward the Mukata, the compound where Mr. Arafat and at least 100 soldiers, police officers and international volunteers had been holed up for more than a month.
The Israeli government had confined Mr. Arafat to Ramallah since December and to a few rooms in the compound since late March, saying it would release him only after he surrendered for trial six men accused of terrorism. Under a deal brokered by the United States, the six were turned over Wednesday to British guards and transferred to a prison in Jericho. Hours later, Israeli soldiers began their withdrawal.
By yesterday morning, Palestinians were crawling over the shattered compound, breathing the human funk of close quarters, stepping over plastic bags of excrement and marveling at the burned-out walls, flattened Mercedes-Benz sedans and widespread evidence of Israeli shelling and mortar fire.
Television reporters replaced Israeli snipers on the compound roofs, broadcasting live. The confinement has made Mr. Arafat more popular than ever with his people, but now that he is free he will be under renewed pressure to take genuine steps to resolve the conflict with Israel. Many foreign diplomats say his release makes him newly accountable for the actions of military factions only nominally under his control.
There have been no suicide bombings in Israel proper since Mr. Arafat condemned such attacks in response to a bus bombing nearly three weeks ago. But two Palestinian militias the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas have refused to renounce terrorism, saying that the Israeli occupation justifies all responses. Some Palestinians say Mr. Arafat's popularity could be fleeting if he is not seen as continuing to resist the Israelis.
"The people are afraid Mr. Arafat has made too many concessions," said Kayed Ghoul, the political adviser to the PFLP.
He rejected the hand-over of six prisoners five of whom were suspects in the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister by the PFLP and warned that Palestinians will never accept a land-for-peace deal that doesn't offer them complete sovereignty.

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