Claiming that he was the victim of a linguistic snafu, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat said on Wednesday that a call he had previously made for a “jihad” to regain Jerusalem had been misinterpreted.
Arafat’s comments came on the same day that the Israel Defense Force evacuated its last installation in the Gaza Strip, bringing to an end 27 years of Israeli administration of the region.
Speaking in Oslo on Wednesday, Arafat said that he had indeed called for a jihad during a speech at a South Africa mosque a week earlier. But he said he intended the word to mean a peaceful crusade rather than a holy war, as the Arabic expression is generally interpreted in English.
“I’ll continue my jihad for peace,” he told a news conference in Oslo.
Arafat asserted that he was committed to the declaration of principles signed last fall with Israel and that he was opposed to violence and terror.
Arafat had made the speech while in South Africa to attend last week’s inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. On Tuesday, a tape recording of the speech was played on Israel Radio, prompting a furor.
“Jihad will continue and Jerusalem is not for the Palestinian people. It is for all the Muslim people,” Arafat said in the speech. “Our main battle is Jerusalem.”
Both Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres stated Tuesday that the remark could throw the entire peace process with the Palestinians into question.
But on Wednesday, appearing at a joint news conference with Arafat, Peres stated that he was satisfied with Arafat’s explanation.
The two men had travelled to Oslo to attend an award ceremony honoring the role Norway played in the back-door diplomacy that led to the signing of the declaration of principles.
REMARK PROMPTS AMERICAN CRITICISM
Former President Jimmy Carter was also on hand to unveil a monument presented by the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation and to present a $100,000 check to the Norwegian Institute for Applied Social Science, which had helped arrange the series of secret negotiations between Israel and the PLO last year.
Underscoring how strongly he initially felt about Arafat’s jihad remark, Peres said on first arriving in Oslo that he would boycott any public gathering that Arafat attended until the PLO leader personally announced that he was fully committed to the declaration of principles, was opposed to violence and terror and was bent upon pursuing peace.
The remark was also taken quite seriously by the U.S. State Department.
Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state, speaking to Jewish leaders in New York on Wednesday, said that Arafat must repudiate the statement.
“As Rabin said, if Arafat’s statement is not clarified to the extent of repudiation, it will constitute a violation of his letter to Rabin,” Talbott told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He referred to letters exchanged between Rabin and Arafat last September which spelled out their commitments to one another and paved the way for the signing of the declaration of principles.
Talbott said that as soon as the United States heard of the statement, “we instructed our ambassador in Oslo to clarify it for us.”
While Talbott had not heard the clarification Arafat issued on Wednesday from Oslo and therefore declined to comment directly on it, he said he was hard-pressed to understand how jihad could be defined as a struggle for peace.
Lester Pollack, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, rejected the clarification as “inadequate, insufficient and disingenuous.”
Arafat will head a party of Palestinians due to arrive in the autonomous Jericho district during the first week of June, senior Arafat adviser Nabil Sha’ath announced in Cairo on Wednesday.
According to Sha’ath, Arafat intends to supervise implementation of the autonomy in person. Sha’ath did not say how long Arafat would spend in Jericho.
Israel handed over the 24-square-mile Jericho district to Palestinian control last Friday.
The official hand-over of Gaza was accomplished during a brief signing ceremony Tuesday, and the evacuation of the last Israeli installations there took place early the following day.
A convoy of eight Israeli jeeps left Ansar Prison in Gaza City at 3:00 a.m. Wednesday. Jubilant Palestinians marked the occasion by throwing stones at the departing troops.
No formal ceremony was held to mark the hand-over of authority, although one had been planned. The ceremony was canceled at the insistence of settlers of living in the Gush Katif bloc within Gaza, who viewed the Israeli pullout as a surrender to the PLO and an abandonment of the settlers.
(Contributing to this report was JTA staff writer Larry Yudelson in New York.)
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