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Monday, December 14, 1998 Published at 11:50 GMT

World: Middle East

Clinton begins Gaza tour

President Clinton and Yasser Arafat open the airport in Gaza

Live coverage:

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  BBC World Service Arabic - 14k modems
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President Clinton is holding talks in Gaza with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, on the first visit by an American president to territory run by Palestinians.

President Clinton's arrival at Gaza International Airport
Accompanied by his wife Hilary, the president was greeted on arrival by Mr Arafat.

President Clinton and Mr Arafat went on to open the new Gaza International Airport, presenting each other and their wives with pieces of the cut ribbon as mementos.

The president then left the airport by helicopter for a short flight to central Gaza.

Middle East
At a news conference in Gaza before a meeting with Mr Arafat, the president said he was delighted to be invited to make such a "truly significant" visit and hoped the event would improve the prospects of a middle East peace deal

Mr Arafat described the president's presence in the Palestinian controlled territory as an historic visit which honoured the Palestinian people.

Security for the visit is tight with hundreds of American and Palestinian security personnel involved. Eyewitnesses said a row erupted when US secret service agents attempted briefly to search Yasser Arafat's car.

Talks with council

President Clinton's Gaza trip follows a passionate appeal to Israelis to work with the Palestinians to achieve peace.

He has also planned talks with Palestinian leaders to salvage the land-for-security peace accord brokered in October.

An appearance at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council is the centrepiece of the president's trip, where the president is expected to urge the council to amend parts of its 1964 charter calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

The Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says there will be no more troop withdrawals from the West Bank unless the council votes to annul these parts of the charter.

[ image: Palestinians see the trip as a morale booster]
Palestinians see the trip as a morale booster
Palestinians say the time for voting is over and point out that the Wye memorandum says only that PNC members will reaffirm their support for moves already taken.

However, our correspondent Bridget Kendall, who is travelling with the president, says the Americans seem confident the issue will be resolved.

Mr Clinton has intentionally left his evening open, and is likely to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together then for a three-way summit.

Palestinian statehood

Bridget Kendall: Many see Mr Clinton's trip as support for Palestinian statehood
The Gaza trip has drawn criticism in Israel as amounting to a symbolic endorsement of Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

American officials insist it is not about recognising Palestinian statehood. But western diplomats privately admit the symbolism cannot be discounted.

BBC Middle East Correspondent Jeremy Bowen: Faith in Clinton's ability to deliver peace may be misplaced
However, even if the Palestinian National Council votes to Israel's satisfaction, Mr Netanyahu says the Palestinians will have to meet other conditions before further troop withdrawals.

He wants Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to retract his intentions to unilaterally declare a state in May and to accept Israel's terms for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

[ image:  ]
Violent protests over the prisoner issue have left four Palestinians dead and many injured in daily clashes across the West Bank.

Under the Wye River peace deal, Israel promised to release 750 prisoners by the end of January. But most of the 250 freed last month were criminals.

The Palestinians say they should be prisoners held for anti-Israeli activities. In a nod to Mr Clinton's visit, Palestinian convicts will suspend their week-long hunger strike to lower tensions.

But Israel is still warning of a two-week delay to their troop withdrawal saying that the Palestinian Authority had not made enough progress in collecting weapons and reducing the size of its police force.

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