SHORTLY after the devastating Arab defeat in 1967, Yasser Arafat slipped into the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. His mission: to lead an armed struggle to prevent the Arab states and Israel from reaching a deal that could extinguish Palestinian nationalism.
He left a few months later, narrowly escaping Israeli captivity when a comrade betrayed him.
Almost 27 years later, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Arafat is returning to Gaza on a different mission: Squeezed by empty coffers, internal criticism, and Israeli limitations on his role, the leader hopes that the defiant masses of the Mediterranean strip will affirm his legitimacy and bolster his demands for international financial aid. (See Gaza, Page 6.)
Arafat's surprise visit to the populous Gaza Strip today is calculated to turn the tables on his disgruntled colleagues, international critics, and the Israelis. In dramatic fashion, Arafat wants to prove that he remains the Palestinians' preeminent leader.
``It will be an undisputed referendum,'' says a close aide, who was one of the few that Arafat told about his plan, which he decided on only late Wednesday night.
The expected tumultuous welcome will give Arafat lots of mileage to boost his demands for adequate funds from international donors to set up the autonomy and to challenge the restrictions imposed by his deal with Israel that reduce his rule.
It is expected that Arafat will use the overwhelming emotional euphoria, welcoming his return to Gaza, to break all the molds that the Israeli-Palestinian accords, signed on May 4, confine him to.
Arafat follows pattern
Following a pattern that he has pursued for years, Arafat will use Gaza, the poorest and most explosive spot in the former Israeli-occupied territories, to challenge the international community and the Arab states into accepting some responsibility for the Palestinians and peace.
Even before his arrival in Gaza, he used every opportunity he had to accuse the international community and the Arab governments of starving Gaza by withholding funds designed to finance the five-year Palestinian self-rule period.
``We have been telling him that he can make a stronger, more poignant message from Gaza than from any other podium,'' says the aide, who requested anonymity. ``He could use his unchallenged legitimacy to set his conditions instead of cornering and isolating himself in his Tunis office.''
It will be the first time that Arafat will address his people in the territories in person. Over the years, Arafat has kept his grip through telephone calls - occasionally broadcast on loudspeakers - or radio interviews, mainly from a Paris-based station.
His sudden decision to make a three-day visit to Gaza, under the prodding of chief PLO negotiator Nabil Shaath, as well as local leaders, constitutes a shift of tactics. Since the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Arafat has resisted pressures to move into his new headquarters in the West Bank town of Jericho, partly to compel the international donors to provide him directly with funds pledged for setting up the Palestinian Autonomy (PA).
From his office in Tunis, he has been telling Western ambassadors that the autonomy will not get off the ground if the money is not handed over.
But while the donor countries are mainly interested in financing autonomy institutions directly, Arafat wants control of the money to set up the institutions and consolidate his control as president of the PA and the PLO. According to Western diplomats, the donors have made it clear that they want to ensure that the money will be given to the PA and not the PLO.
Arafat realizes his new role is not as powerful as the one he has enjoyed as leader of the PLO. Under the terms of the agreement reached with Israel, the PA cannot forge formal diplomatic ties with any country and has to abide by the limited objectives of the autonomy deal. In practice, that means Arafat, as president of the PA, cannot make statements articulating PLO goals, such as independence in the shape of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Arafat's Palestinian critics concede that if Arafat strictly adheres to his role as the president of the PA, he will jeopardize the popular support he has earned as a revolutionary symbol.
When seen in Tunis last week, Arafat looked tired, but he certainly was not willing to give up his status as PLO leader. When confronted by criticism that his statements violated the agreement, he rolled his protruding brown eyes. ``Listen,'' he said, ``history will remember [South Africa's President Nelson] Mandela and Arafat as the two leaders who led their people to victory.''
Arafat's new role
What comes across when one meets Arafat is that he is determined to go all the way in expanding the limits of his new role, unperturbed by critics who either expect him to adhere to the letter of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement or those who have advised him to relinquish the leadership of the PA to continue leading the national struggle.
His concern about his role as president of the PA is evident through his attempt to keep Tunis his actual headquarters by delaying his move to Jericho, where the PA will be established.
Once again Arafat has proved that he is a master tactician. But his risky adventure - his life could be threatened by Palestinian rejectionists or Israeli extremists - is not expected to save him from the confines of a new role that he still refuses to assume.