The plan to end Arafat’s siege was announced after the 25 April meeting in Texas between US President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leader held intensive meetings with all Bush’s foreign policy and defence advisers, including vice-president Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom are said to have opposed the idea of reviving Arafat’s political role.

The arrangement entailed US and British wardens supervising the imprisonment in Jericho of six Palestinians wanted by Israel in connection with the assassination of tourism minister Rehavim Zeevi in October 2001 and with the Karine A weapons smuggling incident in December.

Saudi officials have been quoted as saying that Bush will now concentrate on pressing Israel to pull its forces out of the occupied territories – Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was due in Washington in the second week of May – while Crown Prince Abdullah will impress on Arafat the need to satisfy US concerns on security.

Arafat sounded a defiant note in his first remarks after Israeli forces pulled back from his compound. ‘It is not important what happened to me here. What is important is what is happening in the Church of the Nativity. This is a crime,’ he said in reference to the continued stand-off in Bethlehem.

Palestinian officials said that Arafat will press ahead with plans to rebuild and reform the Palestinian Authority. ‘The Palestinian leadership is embarking on extensive reforms to be implemented within the Palestinian government immediately,’ said Parliamentary Affairs Minister Nabil Amr on 1 May. The changes are expected to include bringing ‘opposition’ figures into the central Palestinian administration.