Thousands of jubilant Palestinians whistled and clapped as Yasser Arafat arrived by helicopter Sunday to honor the first West Bank city given autonomy under the latest Israeli-PLO agreement.
“In the name of God we meet here in liberated Janin,” the Palestine Liberation Organization leader told the cheering crowd. “Together we shall build an independent Palestinian state.”
Janin is the first of seven West Bank cities that Israeli troops are scheduled to pull out of by spring. The pace of the withdrawal was accelerated after the Nov. 4 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“The path of peace continues, and it will not be slowed by those who raise their guns or by assassinations,” Arafat said.
He said that Palestinians would pray and celebrate under self-rule in Bethlehem by the end of the year and that, “after that, we shall pray together in Jerusalem.”
Palestinians want the eastern part of Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israel insists the entire city will remain its capital.
Janin was turned over to Palestinian rule last week. The hand-over of Tulkarm, the next city slated for Israeli withdrawal, began Sunday with the opening of a liaison office and the arrival of 20 Palestinian police officers.
The Sept. 28 Israeli-PLO autonomy accord calls for the hand-over of six West Bank cities and more than 400 villages to the PLO by the end of the year. The next cities scheduled to be handed over are Nablus, Kalqilya, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Israeli troops will partially withdraw from the city of Hebron by the end of March.
Jericho and the Gaza Strip became autonomous in May, 1994, under an earlier Israeli-PLO pact.
In Janin, hundreds of Palestinian police tried to keep people out of the PLO headquarters, and a line of armed bodyguards squatted in front of Arafat as he spoke.
“Finally we saw him,” exclaimed Montaha Ghazi, a 29-year-old homemaker. “It was a dream before. Now the dream has come true.”
Meanwhile, Ahmed Saati, an official of the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has opposed the Israeli-PLO peace process with bombs and bullets, said Sunday in Gaza that the group will form a political party to run in Palestinian elections scheduled for January.