RARELY has the Gaza Strip made such a favorable impression on a visitor. After just three days here, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has decided to stay.
Yesterday's announcement came as a surprise. The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had billed his trip here as a four-day visit.
But he has changed his mind. ``He will be back after our trip to Paris; he will be back here for good,'' Mr. Arafat's top adviser, Nabil Shaath, said here yesterday.
Arafat is due to travel to Paris today after a visit to the West Bank town of Jericho, where he will inaugurate the Palestinian Authority (PA), the body that will run the autonomous Palestinian areas of Gaza and Jericho pending elections.
That inauguration will mark the only concrete achievement so far of Arafat's historic return to his homeland. He has devoted his first few days in Gaza to meeting his people, either in the privacy of his hotel room or from the sunroof of his black Mercedes Benz, which has roared from one end of the Gaza Strip to the other at the head of chaotic motorcades.
``He has been going from place to place, refugee camp to refugee camp, just to see his people, to meet them,'' says Freih Abu Middein, who will be justice minister in the 25-member PA. ``There is no time to do other work.'' (See refugees, Page 7.)
``I think the visit is quite cosmetic, rather than doing things on the ground,'' adds Mansour Shawa, named to head Gaza City's municipal council. ``People are anxious to see him, and of course it is symbolic of actually formally starting the implementation of the [autonomy] agreement.''
In his public appearances, Arafat has been careful not to be provocative, and his speeches have won plaudits from Israeli government officials.
Addressing crowds of supporters in Gaza, Arafat has steered clear of the most controversial issues that remain to be negotiated with Israel, such as the Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Nor has he tried to visit Jerusalem, a move that would have sparked a violent reaction by Israeli opposition supporters. Indeed, in his arrival speech on Friday, he referred to Jerusalem in exclusively religious terms, not as a political goal.
His constant references to Jerusalem, however, in all his speeches, have ensured that the future of the city - which Israel has said will remain forever under its sovereignty as its capital, but which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state - will be high on the immediate agenda.
The prospect of Palestinian claims on the holy city galvanized the right-wing Israeli opposition into mounting one of the biggest demonstrations in years in Jerusalem on Saturday night. Addressing the crowd from a balcony draped with a banner reading ``Death to Arafat,'' opposition leaders pledged to stop the PLO leader from ever visiting Jerusalem.
ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, however, remained unmoved by the right-wing's fury. ``The peace process goes on,'' he told a meeting of his Labor Party on Sunday.
Arafat, too, shrugged off Israeli opposition to his visit. ``There are people in Israel who love peace,'' he told reporters. ``We shall stand with them, and they shall stand with us.''
At the same time, the PLO leader has made insistent overtures to opponents of the autonomy accord within his own camp. ``We need more and more national unity, national unity, national unity,'' he declared when he arrived in Gaza. ``National unity is our shield.''
The next day, he was even more direct in his appeal to his political enemies. ``I call from here to Hamas, the [Islamic] Jihad, the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine],'' he said in a speech on Saturday. ``I call on them to help me lift the heavy burden. Come and help me lift it.''
Opposition figures were wary of the overtures. ``We wonder whether there is a serious practical initiative behind this, or whether it is just for public consumption,'' says Ghassan al-Khatib, a leader of the Peoples Party and prominent Arafat critic. ``We shall have to see.''
``Wait and see'' appeared to mark most Palestinians' response to Arafat's arrival. As Gazans look to their leader to lift them from the economic mire, he has been warning them that ``this is a difficult march.''
``Brothers, we are facing a big challenge,'' he warned one audience. ``Are we able to build an authority in order to reach a Palestinian state with its capital noble Jerusalem?''
``Yes,'' the crowd roared back. Whether that confidence is justified will start to come clear next week, Mr. Abu Middein said. ``When we return from France, then we will deal with the real problems on the ground, the economic challenges.''