Amidst the jubilation and greetings of thousands of his people, and watched by millions on television world-wide, Yasser Arafat has finally come home. For many, his return was regarded as a dream come true. Yet others felt betrayed and very bitter - sixty percent of the Gaza Strip and a few square kilometers in the West Bank in an oasis called Jericho - is not exactly the independent state Arafat and his colleagues have promised, and for which thousands of martyrs have died, and tens of thousands have spent the best years of their life in Israeli jails. Neither could it be the fruit of decades of struggle which have witnessed the uprooting of a whole nation from eighty percent of its land.
Still, Arafat's return was one of the most electrifying moments in recent Palestinian history. Less than a year ago, it would have been inconceivable that the man sought by the Israeli army and intelligence for more than a quarter of a century, would ride through the streets of Gaza and Jericho with the approval of the Israeli government and its prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Ironically, it was Rabin who was the chief of staff of the army that occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and turned Arafat and his fighters, along with more than half a million Palestinians into refugees - some of them for the second time in their life.
During his first short visit, the same themes could be discerned in Arafat's speeches. In all of them he stressed national unity; the hard work needed to build a democratic state - with East Jerusalem as its capital; freedom to Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Ham as); the release of all other Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; and, of course, his commitment to the peace process. He also attacked the donor nations that have promised 2.4 billion dollars to the newly autonomous areas, but have not been as forthcoming as expected. He even talked of an agricultural revolution in Jericho, ignoring the fact that by most countries' standards, the town's total area is less than that of a mid-size farm. He tried his best to lift the spirits of the people who after so many years of occupation are very, very tired.

Arafat's Problems

For some analysts, Arafat failed to live up to the occasion. His speeches were flat, they said, and he looked tired and at times even bored. But, with millions either watching or listening, and with the Israelis ready to pounce on each and every word he uttered, Arafat was very careful not to step out of line - especially after his now famous "Jihad Speech" in Johannesburg.
Be that as it may, Arafat faces an almost impossible mission. Words alone are not going to help much, and rhetoric can win the crowds only for a few days - a month perhaps. The challenges are great and so are the enemies, skeptics and critics.
The treaty he signed with Israel has not made matters any easier for the great majority of Palestinians: the road blocks are still there and Israeli army jeeps still roam the roads of the West Bank and some of the main streets of Gaza. Instead of simplifying the life of the population in Gaza and Jericho, the treaty has complicated it even more, since now they have to go through both Palestinian and Israeli officials to get permits for jobs and travel abroad. More importantly, Israel still has control over all exports and imports. Even to mail a letter, the people of Gaza and Jericho still have to use an Israeli stamp; and to make a telephone call, the only service available is provided by Bezek (the Israeli telephone company).
Another problem Arafat faces is the widely popular support for Hamas, Jihad and the rejectionist organizations that still operate under the umbrella of the PLO, and their ability to make life very difficult for him. So far they have chosen to watch from the sidelines, but nobody can guarantee that this situation will last for long, and that their men will sit on the fence while, what they consider to be a treacherous agreement, is being implemented.
There is also the tension between the "insiders" and the "outsiders": the young rebellious men who have led the Intifada that forced Israel to negotiate with the PLO, and the "Tunis men" who have led the revolution since 1967. It is no big secret that the local leaders of the shabab feel left out and ignored by Arafat and his top lieutenants. They fear that when the rest of the Tunis bureaucrats arrive, the locals will be forced to take an early retirement.
Heads of local clans are another dissatisfied lot. Some of them consider themselves just as worthy of leadership as Arafat and his newly sworn-in ministers. If one takes into account that a few of them, like the Kawasmis in Hebron, head families that outnumber the newly formed Palestinian police force, while others like the Masris in Nablus and Shawas in Gaza have more money spread among their members than the few million dollars the Palestinian Authority has received so far, it would be very unwise of Arafat not to try to win their support.
Israel withdrew from Gaza and Jericho, or for the sake of accuracy, partially, because the occupation of Gaza had become, for the majority of Israelis, a nightmare they wanted to end. They left behind a poverty-¬stricken land with an infrastructure badly in need of a complete overhaul where unemployment exceeds sixty percent; where the water for drinking is polluted and for irrigation is scarce; where open sewers can be found in almost every neighborhood, not to mention the lakes of sewage in refugee camps; and where thousands of houses are unfit for human occupancy and land for building is scant.
The situation in Jericho is hardly any better. Tourism, which was its main source of income, is suffering badly from an almost total boycott by Israeli tourist companies. Agriculture is also suffering since Israel is making it almost impossible for farmers to market their produce either in the country, or to export them to other countries.


In fact, very little has changed since mid-May when the National Authority took over. Arafat's supporters say the new state is still in its infancy and that building a state from scratch takes a great deal more than a few months. His critics, on the other hand, claim that what we see now points to the fundamental difficulties to come, and charge that Arafat intends to practise what they describe as the dictatorial leadership style he has exercised since the early days of the revolution. Both sides, however, agree that whatever support there is for him and for the peace process will erode unless progress is made very soon to improve the economy.
Ordinary people feel relieved that the occupation and its army is gone and are happy to see Palestinian policemen patrolling the streets in place of the Israeli border-guards. But, the return of Arafat to the autonomous areas marks only the beginning of what promises to be a very long and arduous journey. Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho might be a cause for celebration, but it definitely is not a great accomplishment. The majority of Israelis wanted a pullout and are happy to see Arafat and his men carry the burden that their army had carried for many hard years. In fact, some of the leading figures in the Likud opposition, such as former defense minister Moshe Arens, had been advocating a withdrawal from Gaza long before the famous handshake on the White House lawn. Jericho was the carrot that Israel had to give up in order to attract the cooperation of the PLO.
What Arafat and his team of negotiators face now is a completely different game. Convincing the Israeli leadership and public of giving up the rest of the Occupied Territories is no easy task. If it took a year of negotiations to reach the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, how long would it take to agree on the
future of the West Bank, where 120 thousand settlers live in 144 settlements? If forty percent of the very densely populated Gaza Strip has remained under Israeli control to ensure the security of five thousand settlers, how much land should Israel keep to satisfy the security needs of the West Bank settlers? And then there is the issue of Jerusalem. Would the Israelis, whether from the Right or Left agree to Palestinian sovereignty over the eastern part, and if not (which will definitely be the case), could they ever find a Palestinian partner willing to affix his signature to a treaty every Arab and Muslim would be loathe to accept, and would certainly consider treacherous? The questions are many and the answers are few, and even those who have committed themselves to the peace process have their doubts.
The Oslo and Cairo Agreements were forced upon the majority of Palestinians. Now they are faits accomplis and the clock cannot be turned back. There is no choice but to make the best out of a bad situation, and if Arafat is in a fix, Israelis and Palestinians alike, are in it with him: if he fails, everybody will pay the price.
From Amman of the sixties, to Beirut of the seventies, Tunisia of the eighties and now Gaza, it has been a long journey home for Arafat. He is known to be a natural survivor and a charismatic leader, and whether a friend or an enemy, one has to admire his courage and willpower. If Israel ever decides to put an end to the bloodshed and misery of the two peoples that were forced to share the same land, and to negotiate a lasting peace, it will have once again to turn to him, for he is probably the only Palestinian who can deliver. <