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Fear of reprisals by Israeli and Palestinian hardliners has meant that Israel has mounted its largest security operation since President Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem during the 1979 Camp David Agreements.
Dressed in his usual military fatigues and keffiyeh headdress, the PLO leader raised a victory salute as he crossed the border at Rafah from the Sinai Desert in Egypt.
Just before taking a helicopter from Cairo with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, Mr Arafat said: "Now I am returning to the first free Palestinian lands. You have to imagine how it is moving my heart, my feelings."
Surrounded by green-bereted Palestinian guards, he was rushed through the waiting crowds into a bullet-proof, black Mercedes to make the 20-mile journey north to a rally in Gaza City.
Death threats and threatening graffiti by Israeli settlers at Kfar Dorom forced a route change.
But Mr Arafat was still able to see for the first time the problems - from garbage-strewn streets to Israeli enclaves like Gush Qatif - which he will have to address as ruler of the fledgling Palestinian state.
The PLO leader's visit comes a month after the Israeli-PLO Cairo Agreement created a fragile self-rule for Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho in the West Bank.
The Gaza Strip and the West Bank were among the areas of land seized by the Israelis in the Six Day War of 1967.
In Gaza City Mr Arafat gave a triumphant address from the balcony of the former headquarters of the Israeli military governor to a Parliament Square packed with 200,000 Palestinians.
His differences with other Palestinian leaders appeared to dissolve as Mr Arafat spoke of his interest in Jerusalem.
The itinerary for Mr Arafat's three-day visit includes Jericho but not Jerusalem, according to his adviser Nabil Shaath.
Demonstrations against Mr Arafat's presence are taking place in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994.
The return of Arafat was the beginning of the enactment of the Declaration of Principles agreed at the Oslo Peace Accords signed in Washington in 1993.
Under the agreement, the Palestinian National Authority took control of the newly autonomous areas - Gaza and Jericho - and in 1996 Arafat became its elected president.
In 2000 Arafat and the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met at Camp David in the US to agree a final peace deal but they could not reach agreement.
In September 2000 the second Palestinian intifada erupted. Arafat became increasingly isolated - accused of instigating terror.
For the last years of his life, Arafat was confined by the Israelis to the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Although the Palestinian Authority appointed a new leader, he remained a symbolic figurehead and thousands turned out for his funeral when he died in November 2004.
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