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Arafat Emerges After 34 Days, Tours Sites in Palestinian Cities

By John Lancaster
THE WASHINGTON POST -- ramallah, west bank

After 34 days under Israeli siege, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat emerged Thursday morning into bright sunlight outside his battered headquarters here, flashing victory signs and embarking on a raucous, crowd-pleasing tour of hospitals, schools and other icons of his crippled Palestinian Authority.

Looking pale but otherwise unscathed, a smiling Arafat appeared on the steps of his presidential headquarters shortly after 10 a.m., just hours after the last Israeli tanks pulled out of the dusty compound they have occupied since smashing down its walls on March 29. The Israeli withdrawal came after Arafat acquiesced to the terms of a U.S.-brokered compromise in the jailing of six Palestinians wanted by Israel.

Arafat waved to cheering supporters, then roared out of his compound in a motorcade of sport utility vehicles and a dusty late-model Mercedes, a horde of international media on his trail. Although Israeli armored vehicles have withdrawn only to the edge of town, Arafat’s mood and message was triumphal as he greeted crowds of residents, schoolchildren and beaming Palestinian Authority officials.

The crowds responded in kind. “We are marching to Jerusalem, martyrs in the millions,” chanted students at Ramallah’s Anglican elementary school, as Arafat waved from the balcony of a cultural center next door.

Enveloped by burly armed guards in bulletproof vests, Arafat prayed over the graves of slain Palestinian fighters, stood at the bedsides of wounded bodyguards and commiserated with the cultural center’s director, Adila Laidi, over the damage inflicted by Israeli soldiers who used explosives to open the doors of the historic stone building.

“The more destruction I see, the stronger I get,” Arafat told reporters.

But the celebrations may be short-lived. Following Israel’s occupation of Ramallah and five other major Palestinian cities last month, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority is under severe strain, its security forces in disarray and its civic institutions -- many of which were damaged in the Israeli assault -- struggling to provide basic services such as garbage collection and medical care.

“He has a lot of challenges to face, obviously,” said Mohammed Shtayeg, the Palestinian Authority’s director of economic development, during Arafat’s stop Thursday morning at the education ministry, which was ransacked by Israeli troops. “The whole country is in a shambles, and he knows he has to put things together.”

Arafat also knows that Israeli forces poised just outside Ramallah and other West Bank towns could easily repeat their performance of last month. Israeli officials have said they would not hesitate to return to Palestinian cities in response to another round of suicide bombings such as the series of attacks that triggered the last incursion more than a month ago.