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In a Surprise Move, Arafat Announces His Plan to Travel to Gaza This Week

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat was poised Wednesday for his first visit to the autonomous Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip and possibly to the Jericho district in the West Bank as well.

Arafat had indicated his desire to begin his visit on Friday.

Avoiding a potentially explosive issue, Arafat apparently was not planning to include a visit to Jerusalem at this time.

Taken aback by Arafat’s surprise annoucement, which came after weeks of conflicting reports regarding the exact date of Arafat’s visit, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly said the visit could begin Saturday.

The request to permit Arafat to visit was made Tuesday during a meeting between chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath and Gen. Danny Rothschild, coordinator of government activities in the territories.

Under the terms of the May 4 agreement signed between Israel and the PLO in Cairo, Arafat was required to give two weeks notice of any visit he planned to the self-rule areas.

But Yossi Sarid, the Israeli Cabinet minister who is chief negotiator in the latest talks with the Palestinians, said that Rabin can cut that advance-notice period at his discretion.

“It’s a practical question,” said Sarid. “Is two days notice enough for us to make the proper (security) arrangements?”

Sha’ath told Israel Radio on Tuesday that Arafat would arrive in Gaza from Egypt via the Rafah border crossing, adding that the visit would be “for three or four days” and would “most likely” also include a stopover in Jericho.

‘I’M GOING BACK HOME!’

According to Sha’ath, Arafat told him on the telephone; “‘I’m coming! I’m going back home!’

“Of course he’s very excited,” Sha’ath said.

Arafat was last in the West Bank in 1967 for a short period after the Six-Day War. His original plans called for him to visit Jericho first and establish a headquarters there.

Eight weeks have elapsed since Arafat and Rabin signed an agreement in Cairo to implement Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and Jericho. Arafat’s absence from the autonomous areas has been cited as the key reason for delays in getting Palestinian autonomy up and running in some key areas.

Sha’ath said that after the visit. Arafat would return to Egypt and go from there to Paris for a planned meeting next week with Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

More than 100 people were expected to accompany Arafat, who will probably travel from Gaza to Jericho by helicopter, if indeed he decides to visit the West Bank seat of autonomy.

Israeli police, who were particulary concerned about right-wing demonstrations, immediately went into high gear to plan security for Arafat’s visit.

The joint Israeli-Palestinian Liaison Committee, which will oversee security at the crossing points between Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas, immediately held a session to begin making final arrangements for the visit.

Israel’s right wing greeted the news of the visit with predictable fury.

“This is a national disgrace,” said Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. “It marks the nadir of the Rabin government’s slide into degradation.”

The Likud, National Religious Party and Tsomet are planning to introduce a measure of no-confidence in the government next week.

The Association of Settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza reacted by saying the visit will be “a desecration of the land and of our holy Sabbath.”

The settlers group said it was establishing a central command to coordinate protest activities.

Extremist Israelis have repeatedly threatened to assassinate Arafat for his past acts of terrorism.

In Gaza, residents reacted to the news about Arafat’s imminent arrival.

“They have booked all the hotels for Arafat’s people and they are cleaning the streets in front of the hotels and the beach,” a Gazan reporter said.

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