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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Middle East diary: A bad day for Arafat
Yasser Arafat emerges from the Church of the Nativity
The crowds at Mr Arafat's visit to Bethlehem were thin
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Paul Wood
By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent in Bethlehem

On the third day of his diary for BBC News Online, Paul Wood is in Bethlehem to witness a less than emphatic reception greeting Yasser Arafat's visit to the Church of the Nativity.

A bad day for Yasser Arafat. Despite reports in the Palestinian media that the "Arab masses" turned out to greet the Palestinian leader, the crowds in Bethlehem were thin.

Many more turned out when the Church of the Nativity reopened at the weekend.

Yasser Arafat at Manger Square, Bethlehem
The militants think that Mr Arafat has made too many compromises
We wait for the Palestinian leader in Manger Square, leaning on a wall. The beautiful white Bethlehem stone is bullet-scarred in places, or turned black and yellow from smoke grenades.

The bells ring out. An Orthodox Mass is being held in the grotto traditionally held to be the birthplace of Jesus as Mr Arafat's motorcade arrives.

The Palestinian leader - physically quite tiny - disappears in a sea of bodyguards and television cameras.

Support 'draining'

The top of his trademark black and white "kufia" head-dress bobs along then a broadly-smiling Mr Arafat is conveyed by the throng through the low stone doorway of the Church.

But most of the people here seem to work for the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli intelligence says support is draining away from Mr Arafat. They may be right. Many ordinary Palestinians are simply weary after so much conflict.

There are also complaints that the Palestinian Authority is inept and corrupt.

The Palestinian leader's bodyguards felt he could not risk facing a crowd full of Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters critical of his leadership

To the militants, Mr Arafat has made too many compromises...agreeing to end the sieges in Ramallah and Bethlehem by sending some of the wanted men into exile, doing the Americans' bidding by denouncing suicide bombers as terrorists.

Hamas threat

That is the explanation for the extraordinary scenes in Jenin later in the day.

The Palestinian leader's bodyguards felt he could not risk facing a crowd full of Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters critical of his leadership.

Mr Arafat saw the rubble, which has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, only from his helicopter.

Behind the scenes, Mr Arafat is reorganising his security services and has begun arresting Hamas and other militants.

Palestinian officials have sometimes seemed afraid of the gunmen. "In a month's time, you won't see them on the streets. There will be no shooting without orders," one Bethlehem "notable" told me.

Diplomats believe Mr Arafat will have to bring the gunmen firmly under control if the peace process is to have any chance.

Click here for day one
Click here for day two

See also:

14 May 02 | Middle East
Middle East diary: At the Erez crossing
12 May 02 | Middle East
Diary of Gaza City life
10 May 02 | Middle East
Gaza gives militants hero's welcome
11 May 02 | Middle East
Arab leaders denounce violence
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