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Palestinians Hostile to Arafat While Leader Tours West Bank

By Mark Magnier
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Nablus, West Bank

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat toured the battle-scarred West Bank on Monday, encouraging his people and kissing babies’ cheeks after the lifting of a ban on his movement gave him his first opportunity to travel in six months.

Even as he enjoyed freedom of movement, the Palestinian leader found himself increasingly hemmed in politically. He has been slammed by the United States and Israel for not ending suicide bombings, and by hard-line Palestinians for agreeing to exile militia members and otherwise “selling out” the cause.

President Bush, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon all reaffirmed over the past 24 hours their belief that a Palestinian state should be established. As always, however, views vary widely on how soon it should be established and how extensive it should be.

In one sign of the growing pressure Arafat faces, he opted to stay in his car Monday as it sped through the Jenin refugee camp, site of a brutal battle between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen last month.

Jenin residents chanted the name of Mohammed Tawanbeh, a recently killed member of the militant group Islamic Jihad, as Arafat’s car approached -- a challenge to the Palestinian leader, given his recent condemnation of violence. They also reportedly set fire to the platform from which he was due to speak.

Aides to Arafat attributed the fire to an electrical short. And they said he didn’t stop because the large crowds and danger of unexploded bombs threatened his safety. Others, however, said the real reason was his reluctance to face his critics.

“Arafat is weakened and losing touch with the grass roots,” said Husam Khader, a leader from the Balata refugee camp and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “He’s more afraid of real democracy than he is of Israeli incursions.”