TEL AVIV, Nov. 9 -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat entered Israel Thursday for the first time since assuming power in the Gaza Strip 18 months ago to pay a condolence call to the widow of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Israel had asked Arafat not to attend Rabin's funeral on Monday for security reasons, and the secret visit was revealed only after he had headed back to Gaza City. 'It was our duty, because as you know I did not have the ability to participate due to security matters,' Arafat told reporters on his return to Gaza. Arafat said he told Mrs. Rabin, 'We lost a brave man who made the peace of the brave with us. He was our partner, and we thank you for continuing his road and his march (to peace).' Mrs. Rabin replied that her husband had also seen Arafat as a partner for peace, Israeli Radio and Television reported. The visit was arranged under heavy security by Yossi Ginossar, a former senior officer with the Shinbet secret police, the reports said. Arafat flew to Tel Aviv from Gaza City, visited with Mrs. Rabin for an hour and a half, and then returned to Gaza. Since Rabin was assassinated Saturday by a lone gunman, the building where he and his wife lived in north Tel Aviv has been surrounded by both dozens security officers and hundreds of supporters who have lined the area with thousands of memorial candles. Rabin, Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres -- who has succeeded Rabin as acting prime minister -- shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year for their efforts in advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Despite his stated desire to attend Monday's funeral with other world leaders, Arafat watched the ceremonies on a television in his Gaza City office. Since assuming power as head of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat had met with Rabin and Peres on many occasions at the Erez border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Because of both Israeli and Palestinian sensitivities, he had previously not been invited to set foot in Israel, although all his Cabinet members have held talks in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Arafat was accompanied on his condolence call by his deputies, Abu Mazen and Abu Alla, two of the key men responsible for the historic Oslo Accord that Arafat signed with Rabin at the White House in September 1993. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem Thursday, thousands of Israelis continued to stream past Rabin's grave at the Mount Herzl cemetery. The silent crowds have left a forest of thousands of memorial candles, which surround the mountain of flowers and wreathes that cover his resting place.