Arafat skips visit to battered refugee camp during tour

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat scrapped a planned stop in this battered refugee camp Monday, apparently out of concerns he would be heckled and his speech drowned out by several thousand people chanting the names of dead Islamic militants.

Security officials advised the Palestinian leader -- on his first tour of the West Bank since he was confined by Israel forces to Ramallah six months ago -- not to stop among the agitated crowds in the camp, the scene of the heaviest fighting during Israel's recent military offensive.

Arafat visited the town of Jenin and then reached the entrance to the dusty camp, but then left immediately for his next stop, the northern West Bank town of Nablus.

Some residents said people were angered that Arafat's leadership didn't do more to defend them against the Israeli invasion last month.

When two Jordanian desert camouflage helicopters delivered Arafat to a soccer field in Jenin, a crowd of about 500 people greeted him by repeatedly shouting, "Tawalbeh," a reference to Mahmoud Tawalbeh, a prominent fighter and leader of the militant Islamic Jihad who was killed during the April 3-11 battles.

Arafat waved to the crowd and was whisked away in a convoy trailed by some cheering children. He also visited a municipal complex and the tombs of people killed in the fighting.

Thousands left waiting

Arafat's decision to skip the refugee camp came as a surprise. Many houses packed into the cramped camp were leveled by Israeli bulldozers toward the end of the fighting.

About 3,000 people waited for Arafat near the rubble. A wood stage was put up for him to address the crowd. Posters of Arafat were hung beside portraits of 56 Palestinians who died in the camp during the fighting and are revered by residents as martyrs.

A member of parliament from Jenin, Jamal Shati, said security in the camp was not good.

That was evident minutes after Arafat's departure. In a heated argument, apparently over who had fought the Israelis more bravely, two camp residents from Arafat's Fatah movement, shouted at each other. One of the men pulled a pistol and shot the other in the leg.

Earlier, Arafat visited Bethlehem, taking a one hour tour of the Church of the Nativity, the scene of a 39-day standoff, during which Palestinian gunmen and civilians took shelter inside the church from Israeli soldiers.

Surrounded by a crowd of black-robed priests, armed guards and journalists, Arafat ducked into the candlelit grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

A few bullet holes dotted some walls of the compound, but most of the garbage left behind was gone.

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