Palestinian President Yasser Arafat received a hero's welcome from thousands of jubilant supporters Wednesday, pledging to declare statehood this year, but leaving the door open for more talks with Israel after their failed peace summit.
"We signed an agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh with the government of (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Barak, and September 13 is the date for our state announcement," Arafat told reporters, referring to a 1999 deal signed in the Egyptian resort city.
In the United States, the two sides agreed to continue the peace process and not take "unilateral" actions.
Israel strongly objects to the Palestinians' vow to declare statehood even without an agreement between the two sides and fears violence will erupt if it does.
Palestinians are generally jubilant that Arafat refused to make concessions to Israel at the summit, believing that no deal was better than one that compromised their demands, particularly on Jerusalem and refugees.
The streets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip echoed with Arafat's nom de guerre, Abu Ammar.
The chant "with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for Abu Ammar!" rang out as several thousand Palestinians thronged Gaza airport and along the path of Arafat's motorcade, holding aloft pictures of Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque, the third most holy site in Islam.
Hundreds of people attended smaller solidarity protests in the West Bank without incidents of violence, except in the flashpoint town of Hebron where a handful of children burned tires and threw stones at Israeli soldiers.
Both Israel and the Palestinians are bracing for a possible outbreak of violence, and their security forces went on alert ahead of Wednesday's rallies.
Arafat stressed that Jerusalem, the issue that broke the back of the summit hosted by US President Bill Clinton, will be the capital of a Palestinian state.
"We came to Camp David with the determination not to cede our rights. Jerusalem is not only for the Palestinians. It is for the Palestinians, for the Arab nation for the Christians and for Muslims everywhere," Arafat said, without mentioning the Jews.
"Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state, like it or not. Whoever does not like it, let him go and drink from the Gaza sea," he added.
Arafat is due to kick off a tour of Arab capitals next week to explain the failure of the Camp David summit, his aide Tayib Abdel Rahim said.
In Egypt, where Arafat stopped over on his way from Camp David for talks with close ally President Hosni Mubarak, the Palestinian president stressed that peace had been nearly at hand in the United States.
Asked in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria if there was an agreement on any points, Arafat replied: "We did not reach any agreement, but views have come close."
Arafat also left the door open to another summit with Barak, who has blamed the Palestinian leader for the failure of talks.
"As you remember President Clinton mentioned yesterday that it is possible that we go back once more next month to Washington or to any other place he himself would chose," he said.
But Israel's Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, one of the Jewish state's top negotiators, said he doubted there would be another summit.
"I'm not at all sure that such a summit could take place soon given the political situation in Israel," told army radio from Rome after his departure from the United States.
Arafat advisor Nabil Abu Rudeina said no meetings with US or Israeli officials had yet been set.
In sharp contrast to Arafat, who increased his popular support and united Palestinian factions by refusing to budge on the motive questions of east Jerusalem and the refugees, Barak was greeted by a political maelstrom -- GAZA CITY (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )