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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arafat Makes Historic Return to Gaza

GAZA -- Yasser Arafat, roared on by thousands of supporters, returned to the Palestinian self-rule area Friday after 27 years of exile and immediately pledged to extend his struggle to Jerusalem. "We ... are going from here to the al-Ibrahimi mosque" in Hebron, "going to Nablus and Jenin and Tulkarm and Qalqilya and Bethlehem and Beit Sahour and Beit Jalla and Ramallah and then shortly after to Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem to pray there," he said to shouts of approval by a crowd which reporters estimated to be about 10,000. A witness told Israel Army radio that a man with a gun hidden inside a camera was captured attempting to assasinate Arafat as he made his speech after arriving in Gaza. Palestinian authorities denied the report, saying no arrest had been made. Arafat, in the emotional 30-minute speech aimed at all players in the Middle East peace process, also assured Israel he would honor the deal that began self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, calling it "a courageous peace, a courageous compromise." Reflecting the strength of his Islamic opponents in the militant Hamas, which opposes his peace deal with Israel, Arafat called for Israel to release all Palestinian prisoners, "foremost" among them Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin. "In front of us are very difficult missions but we have to build our national authority in order to start building our independent state," he told thousands of Palestinians gathered in a hot, dusty square in Gaza City, capital of the Gaza Strip, a squalid stretch of Mediterranean coastline crammed with refugee camps and slum housing. The chaos at the site was reflected in the collapse of a tree 10 men had climbed to watch Arafat's speech. Some appeared to have been seriously injured in the seven-meter fall. Palestinian police fired into the air in celebration when Arafat's motorcade arrived. Officials appealed repeatedly for an end to the shooting before Arafat, Israel's most formidable Palestinian opponent for decades, could speak. Arafat, arriving from Tunis via Egypt, began his historic return kneeling with tears in his eyes, kissing the ground he had not seen in decades and praying. After that moment of quiet, it was tumult. A phalanx of Palestinian police, punching the air with AK-47 assault rifles, shoved him through a mass of people who had awaited his return. Little more than Arafat's trademark black-and-white checked headdress was visible most of the time, as police pushed back those trying to see the man who had last visited in the 1960s. Police lifted him to their shoulders before reaching his black armored limousine. Arafat stood waving out of the top of the limousine as it sped the 32-kilometer route through the impoverished Strip to Gaza City. Israeli television covered his arrival live, then broadcast coverage of his motorcade from a helicopter for the 35-minute drive. It gave simultaneous translation of the speech into Hebrew. The Palestine Liberation Organization declared Friday a holiday and provided buses from the West Bank and Gaza City to take supporters to greet Arafat. Workmen had been laboring since his visit was announced Wednesday to cover the scars of the 27-year Israeli occupation. Painters were blocking out the graffiti along the route. More than 4,000 Palestinian police, deployed since the peace deal with Israel was finalized in May, blocked off streets and guarded rooftops near the Square of the Unknown Soldier where Arafat spoke. "Abu Ammar," as Arafat is known, "is our president and our symbol. We have been waiting for him for years. We have been waiting for this man since we were born," shouted Khadar Shileh. Arafat hopes his deal with Israel for limited self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, finalized two months ago, will lead to a Palestinian state in all the territory captured by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem.