16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Palestinian anger risingBy Graham Usher
It took the time of a flight between the two destinations (i.e. about 30 minutes) for the "optimism" exuded by participants at Sharm Al-Sheikh summit last week to be dashed on the brutal political realities of the occupied Gaza Strip. "We are at the beginning of the road," said chief PLO negotiator, Yasser Abd Rabbo, after seven years of talks with Israel. "We cannot say there is success until we see actual steps on the ground and real implementation."
"Implementation" now seems to be the sole arbiter of "success" in the Oslo process. Whatever honeyed words were used to coat the deal at the Red Sea resort of Sharm Al-Sheikh, the plain fact is that Yasser Arafat "resolved" the latest crisis in the negotiations by basically surrendering to the same Israeli offer that had caused it at his "difficult" meeting with Ehud Barak in February. If the Israeli leader wore a relaxed smile at Sharm Al-Sheikh and the Palestinian leader a feigned one, it was because Barak had won and Arafat, again, had climbed down.
According to the agreement hammered out last week by Barak, Arafat and US Special Envoy Dennis Ross there will be a Framework Agreement on Oslo's final status issues but with a new "target date" (rather than a hard and fast deadline) in May. Palestinian negotiators may "request" territories to be included in Israel's imminent 6.1 per cent West Bank redeployment but on condition that they are subject to Israeli veto and do not include the Palestinian villages that border East Jerusalem. Even Israel's grudging submission of a date for Oslo's third and final redeployment ("the end of June") was tempered by Foreign Minister David Levy's comments that it will be "conditional" on the two sides reaching an understanding on borders in the Framework Agreement.
Above all, according to Israeli political analyst Shimon Shiffer, the deal at Sharm Al-Sheikh gave Barak what he craved most. "The time and resources that he devoted to the resolution of the crisis with the Palestinians he can now devote to the thing that he feels is truly important: exhausting all the possibilities of reaching an agreement with Syria in the coming months."
The obvious question is why did the Palestinian leader decide to accept goods that less than a week before he had unceremoniously rejected, amid the usual threats that "year 2000 is the year of the Palestinian state" and that he was about to "heat up the Palestinian street." The short answer is that Arafat tends to bow when faced with the combined might of Israel and the US, all of whom prevailed on him to diffuse the crisis on the Palestinian track the better to smooth Barak's way on the Syrian. But there was also another pressure working against any notion Arafat may have had about "heating up the Palestinian street" to further his diplomatic ends -- the simmering discontent of his people.
It would in fact take a small spark to fire the occupied territories given their current temper. Arafat's problem, however, is that the anger of the Palestinians is directed not so much at the Israeli occupation -- still less at the "negotiations" -- but rather at the misgovernance and lawlessness of his own regime.
For the past two months, Palestinian Authority teachers in the West Bank have been on strike, largely over their President's refusal to implement a Civil Service Law that would grant them their first salary rise in seven years. In Gaza, protests are brewing over price rises on such staples as cooking gas and fuel, hikes that Palestinians see as entirely connected to the PA monopolies that control the distribution of these goods. Finally, there was the rude awakening Arafat received when he tried to get tough with those students at the West Bank's Birzeit University who had so embarrassed him by stoning French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, for his comments about the "terrorism" of Hizbullah's resistance.
In response to the usual round of arbitrary and illegal arrests --and torture-- by the PA's intelligence forces, students abandoned classes and staged peaceful demonstrations not only at Birzeit, but also at Hebron, Bethlehem and Nablus universities. It was almost certainly the sense that these protests would spread to other sectors of Palestinian society and lead to a full-scale confrontation with the PA that persuaded Arafat, on 5 March, to release all the detained students unconditionally and without charge.
Yet it is not only that Arafat can no longer "heat up" Palestinians for fear of losing control over them. It is also that any return to even a nationalist rhetoric may produce what has already become known as the "Taibe effect." This refers to the destruction on 2 March of a Hamas military cell by Israeli police in the Israeli town of Taibe near Tel Aviv. For Israel, discovery of the cell augurs a new wave of Hamas military attacks in Israel the better to scuttle any impending peace agreements between Israel and Syria and Lebanon. According to Hamas sources in Gaza, while the four men were indeed Hamas members from Gaza (one was a bodyguard of Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin), they acted as "individuals," without covenant from Hamas's military wing, Izzeddin Al-Qassam.
But whether the Taibe cell was the result of individuals seeking redemption or a collective decision by Hamas, for Palestinians in Gaza they were mourned as martyrs, as witnessed by the hundreds who have paid homage to the dead men's homes in Gaza's Shijaya district and Shati refugee camp. It is a collective emotion drawn from the same well as the sympathy shown by Palestinians to the protests of the Birzeit students. "Whether at Birzeit or in Gaza, there is a Palestinian identification with Hizbullah," admits Palestinian Human Rights lawyer, Raji Sourani. "They remind us of the youths in the Intifada who confronted the Israeli army with nothing but their bare chests. Hizbullah doesn't speak, it does."