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Arafat: Out of Exile, Into the Fire

Struggling to succeed in achieving his dream when even many of his friends are skeptical, the PLO leader returns today to a people lacking in optimism and a land devastated by violence

NOW it is up to him.

When he steps out of exile, as he is due to do here today, into the land he has pledged to make Palestine, Yasser Arafat will, for the first time, feel the full burden of the task ahead of him.

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For 30 years, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has steered his movement through the shoals of Middle East intrigue and superpower rivalry. Walking a tightrope of survival, he has kept his peoples' hopes of independence alive.

But at the moment that should mark the crowning triumph of a career built on the skillful management of alliances, Mr. Arafat is entering the bosom of his people with fewer friends than he has had for years.

The streets of Gaza were muted yesterday, and while people almost universally said they welcomed their leader's planned arrival, there was no euphoria.

``What was achieved [under the Palestinian autonomy plan] was below the minimum that the Palestinian people wanted,'' explained Ahmed Abu Bilal, an unemployed engineer. ``They are not optimistic - a lot of things are not clear to them.''

Of the PLO groups once allied with Arafat's Fatah movement, only a rump faction of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine remains loyal. And many members of Fatah itself are dismayed by the limited autonomy Arafat has accepted, hedged about with Israeli constraints.

Mandela provides solace

The PLO leader draws solace from another veteran leader of a liberation struggle, South African President Nelson Mandela, who succeeded where many skeptics in his own ranks said he would fail. When he had established his presence in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, Arafat tells his critics, when he has ensured international funds and strong security, he will have created an unstoppable momentum toward a fully independent Palestinian state.

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The scenes that greet him when he arrives will illustrate graphically the scale of the physical task that confronts Arafat, not to mention the political and civic challenges inherent in building a nation.

The streets he will travel as he drives from this border post to Gaza City are piled with rotting refuse. Refugee slums fester the length of the Gaza Strip, and tens of thousands of the people who will welcome him are unemployed.

Lots to deal with

``There are a lot of projects to be done, and when he comes, he will have to deal with this,'' says Lt. Jilal Subbugh, a young member of a joint military patrol with Israeli soldiers. ``He should have come back a long time ago, because his visit will make people feel he cares about the situation on the ground.''

Across the road, however, Mohammed Bakari was less enthusiastic. Speaking for a dozen protesters demanding the release of about 4,600 Palestinian prisoners who remain in Israeli jails, Mr. Bakara says: ``It will not be positive at all for [Arafat] to come before the prisoners are freed.''

The PLO leader has also been criticized by some Palestinians for visiting Gaza before his conditions - guaranteed funds from Western donors, for example - had been met. But most feel that the time has come. ``It is like a family,'' says Ahmed Abed Ibrahim, an unemployed metal worker in Gaza. ``It is better when the father is here, and we hope that when Abu Ammar [Arafat's nom de guerre] comes, a lot of problems will be solved.

Arafat's snap decision, not previously coordinated with the Israeli government, took even his closest aides by surprise. Having initially announced his arrival for today, he then bowed to an Israeli government request to postpone it for 24 hours, but later versed himself, respecting Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron's objection to such an event taking place on the Jewish sabbath. A leading Israeli-Arab Muslim cleric supported the chief rabbi's objection.

And little was ready for him here yesterday. The fledgling Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, for example, will be relying on French television for coverage of the PLO leader's return.

Palestinian television is only one of many institutions that need building. ``We are starting from less than zero,'' complains PLO spokesman Diab al-Louh. But at the same time, he adds, ``We have achieved a lot. Forty days ago, the most important thing was to get rid of the Israeli occupation. Now the most important thing is what comes after freedom, and that means the economic situation.''

Arafat also faces a major political challenge from the PLO's chief rival for popular support, Hamas - the radical Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas has denounced the autonomy agreement as a sellout. Leader reaches out to opponents

The PLO leader has reached out to his Islamic opponents, seeking to build a consensus around priority goals, but a Hamas founder was noncommital yesterday.

``We welcome all Palestinians coming back from the diaspora to live in their homeland,'' says Ibrahim Yazouri, a Gaza pharmicist. ``But this is not a return, it's a visit.'' Arafat is planning to spend only three days in Gaza on this trip, according to PLO officials.

Hamas has said it will play no part in the autonomous authority. But at the same time, the movement's leaders have been paving the way to play a constructive role in Palestinian life, rather than obstructing the nascent government.

Mr. Louh welcomes this approach. ``Ours will be a government of all Palestinians,'' he promises. ``This place was liberated as a result of a long struggle by various factions, Islamic and nationalist, and whoever liberated it ... will all be builders together.''

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