JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank – Making his first trip in six months, Yasser Arafat on Monday toured West Bank cities battered by the Israeli military, but drew relatively small crowds in a sign of growing dissatisfaction with the Palestinian leadership.
Arafat skipped his most widely anticipated stop — the devastated Jenin refugee camp — pulling back at the last moment when aides feared he would be heckled in the stronghold for Islamic militants.
With aides holding both his arms, the Palestinian leader stepped gingerly onto the rubble on the edge of the camp, but turned and departed without approaching the makeshift stage or the 3,000 residents awaiting him.
"I'm very angry and very disappointed because Arafat did not visit the camp," said 43-year-old Mohammed Abu Ghalyoun. "He didn't talk to normal people, he didn't want to meet the people who lost their sons.... If he isn't interested in us, we are not interested in him."
Until Monday, Arafat had not left the West Bank city of Ramallah for six months, and much of that time he faced Israeli travel restrictions. The siege appeared to boost his popularity, with many Palestinians viewing the Israeli actions against Arafat as part of a larger attempt to dismantle the Palestinian leadership and undermine their aspirations for statehood.
On May 2, Arafat — then confined by Israeli tanks to a few rooms in his headquarters — regained his freedom by agreeing to place six wanted Palestinians in custody under U.S. and British supervision. And last week, he agreed to Israel's demand to send 13 wanted militants into exile and 26 others from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, ending a 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Arafat faced tremendous pressure from Israel and the United States to make the deals, but it has produced grumbling among some Palestinians.
"All the people in the camp supported Arafat when he was under the siege in his compound in Ramallah," said Mohammed Damaj, a 34-year-old resident of the refugee camp and an activist in Arafat's Fatah movement. Damaj said some Palestinians were disappointed Arafat did not press harder for a U.N. inquiry into the fighting at Jenin, which was scrapped when Israel resisted.
"Arafat was silent about that — the people in the camp felt that Arafat sacrificed them for his personal interests," Damaj said.
The crowd, which broke into cheers several times when it was announced that Arafat was on his way, later launched into chants of, "to Jerusalem we go, martyrs in the millions," echoing a phrase Arafat made popular during his enforced stay in Ramallah.
Arafat's trip to Jenin was also marred by a gunfight between two members of his Fatah movement. After an argument, one shot the other in the leg, sending the crowd fleeing in panic.
Palestinian leaders initially claimed hundreds were killed in the Jenin camp in what they described as a massacre by Israeli troops. Israel calls the Palestinian claims wild exaggerations, saying about 50 Palestinians were killed in the camp, most of them fighters.
International human rights groups have accused the Israeli military of abuses, but said there was no evidence of a massacre in Jenin. Aerial photographs confirmed Israeli claims that only a small part of the camp was destroyed in the fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen.
Israeli troops were gone from Palestinian cities Monday for the first time in six weeks, and the level of bloodshed has declined in recent days.
But early Tuesday, Israeli forces entered the West Bank village of Halhoul, north of Hebron, residents said. Two Palestinian intelligence officers were killed in exchanges of gunfire, they said, as Israeli forces searched the village. Israeli military sources said the purpose of the operation was to arrest suspected militants.
Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are now dealing with the fallout from the violence of the preceding weeks, which included a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israel's military incursion into the West Bank in search of militants.
Sharon suffered a public defeat early Monday when his hard-line Likud party ignored his pleas and voted overwhelmingly to oppose Palestinian statehood.
Sharon, who concedes a Palestinian state is likely to emerge someday, asked his party not to vote on the resolution, but lost in a ballot. The action does not prevent Sharon from formally pursuing negotiations that might lead to Palestinian statehood, but shows he will face tough going within his own party.
Sharon was to address a session of parliament later Tuesday after 30 members signed a petition calling on him to explain his policies.
Sharon's main rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, successfully pushed the resolution to rule out the creation of any Palestinian state in what appeared to be a humiliating challenge to Sharon's leadership of the party.
But the result was considered by many to be a boost — turning Sharon into a voice of moderation and shoring up his popularity with mainstream Israelis.
"Ariel Sharon made his choice last night. He opted for the world central committee over the Likud Central Committee, and the viewers at home over the party activists in the hall," the Yediot Ahronot daily said.
In Washington, a senior Bush administration official declined comment on the Likud resolution, but said President Bush remains committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Arafat responded sharply to the vote. "This is the destruction of the Oslo accords, which they have signed," Arafat said, referring to the interim peace agreements he reached with Israel in the mid-1990s.
In his other West Bank stops Monday, Arafat visited Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, walking arm-in-arm with Christian clergymen and surrounded by Palestinian security guards, who carried their automatic rifles into the church.
Arafat walked through the basilica and descended a few steps into Jesus' traditional birth grotto. "This place will be always and forever inside our hearts, minds and beliefs," he said.
On Sunday, worshippers returned to the church for the first services since the siege began there April 2.
In Arafat's final stop in Nablus, he received a warm greeting from 300 people who chanted, "We sacrifice our blood and our soul for Arafat."
In other developments, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man after he opened fire on troops at the main checkpoint on the edge of Bethlehem, and soldiers shot dead an armed Palestinian after he hurled a hand grenade at guards at the entrance to a West Bank army base.