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.
"We have refused to make concessions on any prisoner or inmate," he declared. "We reject bargaining. The issue of the prisoners is the most important issue for us. It will not be possible for us to rest without them being among us."
The PLO chairman reached out to Palestinian opposition groups, notably the Islamic fundamentalists, in an appeal for national unity; he warmly greeted Dr. Haidar Abdel-Shafi, one of Gaza's most distinguished leaders and one of Arafat's most persistent critics, and kissed him eight times.
And prompted by Wazir, Arafat saluted the young generation of Palestinians who led the six-year uprising against Israeli rule here and in the West Bank, paving the way for the negotiations on self-rule.
"My heartiest blessing to the children of the stones, to the heroes of the stones," Arafat said, acknowledging that the stone-throwers who challenged Israeli soldiers in the streets had in practice succeeded where his guerrilla army had failed.
The second pledge Arafat made was to expand the area of Palestinian autonomy until it covers the rest of the West Bank, which is still occupied by Israel.
"We are going from here, from Gaza to the al Ibrahimi mosque (in Hebron), going to Janin, to Nablus, Tulkarm, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem, Beit Sahur, Beit Jala and Ramallah, and then, then Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he said, promising to "liberate" the Arab section of the city.
Although such comments normally arouse the ire of Israelis, who proclaim Jerusalem their "united and eternal capital," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reacted calmly.
"He can say anything he wants, but he must act according to what is in the agreement," Peres said. "We cannot act as the censors of his dreams. As long as he acts in accordance with the agreement, meaning that he negates and prevents terror, and departs from the Palestinian charter and accepts all the work rules in Gaza and Jericho, it is OK."
In his speech, Arafat told the Israelis, his partners in the search for a Middle East peace: "With Mr. (Yitzhak) Rabin, we signed the peace of the brave, and I say to them, the peace of the brave needs more bravery, more courage from everyone so that we can protect it and peace continues."
Peres observed in Jerusalem: "The test is in the doing, and as things have been done until now, things are going beautifully. . . . Until now it must be said that of all the Palestinian leaders, Arafat, as they say in English, delivered the goods."
Arafat will also visit the West Bank self-rule enclave of Jericho during his current visit, Shaath told reporters Friday.
He said Arafat will go to Paris on Tuesday.
* RELATED STORIES: A10, A12