Israel ended Arafat’s confinement after he handed over Palestinian men wanted for alleged terrorist involvement.
Arafat now faces the challenges of rebuilding his authority in the region as well as answering to U.S. pressure to denounce terror attacks on Israel.
Flashing the victory sign to crowds of supporters chanting “God is great,” Arafat toured the damage in the battle-scarred city of Ramallah.
“The more destruction I see, the stronger I get,” Arafat told reporters as he toured damaged schools, hospitals and other Palestinian Authority sites.
Under the terms of his release, Arafat is free to travel in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and abroad for the first time in over five months.
“He’s now free to show leadership” and denounce terrorism, President Bush said today, after meetings with European leaders. “Of course, that places responsibilities on Israel as well.
“A Palestinian state must be achieved by negotiating an end to occupation, but such a state cannot be based on a foundation of terror or corruption,” Bush said.
The withdrawal of Israeli tanks from Ramallah and Arafat’s subsequent release was the fulfillment of a U.S.-brokered deal that hinged on the turnover of six Palestinians wanted by Israel on suspicion of terrorism and in the assassination of an Israeli cabinet member.
The men were turned over on Wednesday and are now under the supervision of British and American authorities in a Jericho jail.
Arab reaction to the deal was mixed particularly since Israel has not said it will not re-occupy Palestinian cities. Arab leaders also questioned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s warning that Arafat might not be allowed back into the West Bank or Gaza if violence breaks out while he is abroad.
Despite the progress in Ramallah, the standoff at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity continued to worsen as it dragged into a second month.
Hours before Arafat was released, a fire broke out in part of the complex after another round of gunfire between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen who remain inside the church since taking refuge there on April 2.
The fire damaged a parish hall and offices but not the church itself. The cause of the fire is under dispute — Palestinians saying it was sparked by Israeli flares while Israelis accuse Arafat of orchestrating the fire and Palestinians of planting booby traps at the sacred site.
Israeli officials have agreed to investigate the cause of the fire, while Arafat called it a crime of “terrorists, Nazis and racists,” according to Associated Press reports.
Earlier this week, 26 Palestinians were released from the Church after lengthy questioning. Two Palestinian policemen were released Wednesday after one of them was injured by Israeli fire. Israel has said that militants on its wanted list and hiding in the church must go to jail or face exile.
Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced he would disband an international fact finding team sent to investigate rumors of an Israeli massacre in the Jenin refugee camp.
Annan reluctantly abandoned the mission after Israel imposed conditions on the team which they were unable to meet. Israeli officials deny there was massacre and claim that most of the 58 bodies recovered thus far are gunmen who perished in house-to-house battles.
Reaction to the decision sparked strong reaction from the Arab world, with some leaders asking how Israel could defy a U.N. mission and Security Council resolution.