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Arafat Returns in Triumph to Gaza, Pleads for Unity : Mideast: After 27-year exile, he is cheered by thousands and vows autonomy for all of West Bank and eventual independence. But he warns of a 'very hard task ahead.'


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, triumphant in his "journey of return" after 27 years of exile, called on Palestinians on Friday to put aside their differences and build "a democratic and free homeland."

Arafat, setting out the tasks of the new Palestinian Authority, pledged that the agreement the Palestine Liberation Organization signed with Israel on limited autonomy for the Gaza Strip and the Jericho district in the West Bank would be expanded to all of the West Bank and eventually would bring independence.

On a day of drama and history, Arafat was sober, businesslike, almost in awe of the scale of the problems that he faces in turning this impoverished strip of land into the paradise that many of his people expect will come from self-rule.

After crossing the border from Egypt in midafternoon, Arafat addressed a rally of about 70,000 in front of the building that will house the Palestinian Authority's legislature. He then plunged into a night of meetings with political leaders from the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Dropping the fiery rhetoric that marked his speeches as a guerrilla leader, Arafat bluntly warned his people: "We have a very hard task ahead--to build our country, to reconstruct our institutions, to recover from the (Israeli) occupation."

Yet there was also reflection among Palestinians on the significance of Arafat's return--the launch of the Palestinian Authority, the first step toward statehood, the symbolic return of the exiled Palestinian people.

"This is my new day of birth," said Intisar Wazir, widely known as Umm Jihad, the social affairs minister in the Palestinian Authority. "This day reminds me of all the years of sadness and tragedy of the Palestinian people when it was outside its homeland. This day reminds me of my husband, Abu Jihad (the late Khalil Wazir), and all the others who fell in the Palestinian struggle. And I am wishing for the moment when true and full peace will reign between Israelis and Palestinians."

The Gaza Strip presents a formidable challenge to Arafat's ambitions, to Palestinian hopes for both prosperity and democracy and to peace in the Middle East.

More than 850,000 people, many of them refugees from old Arab villages in what is now Israel, are crammed in its 140 square miles. Living conditions here are squalid. Many people have not been employed for years and barely subsist.

This poverty and desperation bred the original Palestinian revolution, then the intifada , the 1987 uprising against Israeli occupation that ultimately led to the peace accord between Israel and the PLO.

Arafat, escorted to the Gaza border by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, walked across at Rafah at midafternoon, gesturing with a "V" for victory sign. He dropped to his knees to kiss the ground and to pray. He was quickly engulfed by scores of Palestinian police officers, disappearing for a while, his black-and-white headdress barely visible, before the officers raised him aloft to the cheers of jubilant supporters.

As Arafat's fast-moving motorcade reached Gaza City, which was decked in Palestinian flags and welcome banners, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to cheer him.

As they assembled in front of the legislative council building, people joined in songs and folk dances and cheered the PLO leader wildly when he appeared. Crowds tore through security fences to get closer to the stage. People fired guns into the air in celebration.

The chaos in Gaza City brought renewed fears of an assassination attempt against Arafat, and Israel Army radio reported that a man with a gun hidden in a camera was arrested while trying to kill Arafat here.

Asked whether there was an assassination attempt on Arafat, Nabil Shaath, a top aide, replied with a laugh: "The only way to assassinate Arafat today was by over-kissing him."

Mohammed Dahlan, Palestinian head of preventive security in the Gaza Strip, said there had been no arrest, as did Maj. Gen. Nasser Yussuf, commander of the Palestinian police.

Jewish settlers had sought to protest Arafat's visit to Gaza but found themselves barred by Israeli troops from entering the autonomous area of Gaza. Instead of demonstrations, they had to content themselves with signs denouncing him as a terrorist and demanding, "Death to the Murderer!"

But Arafat's welcome here was clear as parents brought young children to see and hear the Palestinian leader--a chance to be present at history.

"With spirit, with blood, we sacrifice for you, Abu Ammar," the crowd chanted, using Arafat's nom de guerre.

"My loved ones, my family, my clan, my tribe, my people, my brothers," Arafat began, his voice thick with emotion. "Here we are, and on this day we meet for the first time together on the soil of Palestine in struggling Gaza."

Arafat acknowledged that the struggle continues, in fact, because Israel still holds as many as 6,000 Palestinian prisoners.

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