His landing pad marked by red and green smoke and his path lined by throngs of celebrating Palestinians, Yasser Arafat descended by helicopter Sunday to take possession of this last Israeli-occupied city of the West Bank.
Horns, sirens, banners, balloons and a donkey-mounted honor guard of young men waving flags greeted the Palestinian leader in his first visit in 31 years.
He ascended to a makeshift speaker’s balcony atop the headquarters of Israel’s 30-year military rule and, thrusting a forefinger at the crowd, declared Hebron “a liberated city.”
In this most militant of West Bank cities, where Arafat’s political strength is challenged more than elsewhere by Islamic radicals, the Palestinian leader spoke primarily of reconciliation and peace.
“I say to all peace forces in Israel, to all who voted with this decision, let’s go make peace, a just and comprehensive peace.”
Arafat also spoke directly to the 450 Jewish settlers in Hebron’s downtown who have lived in mutual loathing among 130,000 Arabs. “I tell the settlers in Hebron that we do not want any confrontation,” he said.
Arafat last set foot in Hebron in 1965, then organizing guerrilla combat against Israel. As he has done in each of the cities of the West Bank as they gained limited self-rule, Arafat spoke of the transition as a stepping stone toward a sovereign state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
“The promise is the promise!” he shouted. “The oath is the oath! We will proceed until Jerusalem! … Yes, we will proceed until we establish the independent state!”
From time to time some unlucky Palestinian could be seen being dragged away for some unknown infraction and beaten with clubs by a cluster of Palestinian police.
There seemed to be far more police on hand than the 400 permitted by the new Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Many carried weapons not allowed in the agreement’s careful inventory of 200 pistols and 100 rifles.