ISRAEL AND THE PLO SEAL A PEACE AGREEMENT, RUT PALESTINIANS IN GAZA ARE APPREHENSIVE
‘ENOUGH OF BLOOD AND TEARS. ENOUGH!’
ISRAEL AND THE PLO SEAL A PEACE AGREEMENT, RUT PALESTINIANS IN GAZA ARE APPREHENSIVE
In the bright sunshine bathing the South Lawn of the White House, the two men squinted at each other across a distance of a couple of metres—and four decades of personal enmity. They listened politely to opening speeches by President Bill Clinton, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization official Mahmoud Abbas. And they watched intently as Peres and Abbas sat down and signed a Declaration of Principles on Palestinian self-rule in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank—the biggest breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy since Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. But after the historic signing last week, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat stood momentarily frozen on the stage. Clinton then gently nudged Rabin forward to shake Arafat’s outstretched hand. And when he did, the audience of 3,000 dignitaries let out an audible sigh, many of them wiping tears from their unbelieving eyes.
The handshake, brief and tentative though ft was, symbolized the promise of peace in the troubled Middle East. The speeches that followed made it clear that Israel and the PLO, which only three days earlier had formally recognized one another, were both willing to bury their hate-filled past for the sake of their children’s future. Declared Rabin: “We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and a clear voice, ‘Enough of blood and tears. Enough!’ ” Added the former Israeli war hero: “We wish to open a new chapter in the sad book of our lives together, a chapter of mutual recognition, of good neighborliness, of mutual respect, of understanding.” Arafat was no less eloquent. “My people are hoping that this agreement which we are signing today marks the beginning of the end of a chapter of pain and suffering which has lasted throughout this century,” he said. “Our two peoples are awaiting today this historic hope, and they want to give peace a real chance.”
On the day that Arafat shook hands with Rabin in Washington, Hani Arhim visited his younger brother’s grave in the centre of Gaza City. Four years ago, Sami Arhim, then 29, was killed by Israeli soldiers. Sami, Hani and another Palestinian had been on Israel’s wanted list as members of the radical Islamic Jihad (Holy War)—and they were in hiding. When Israeli soldiers surprised the fugitives in a shack outside of town, Hani surrendered. Sami and the other man jumped out of a window and ran. The soldiers shot them down. Since that day, Hani’s mother has not spoken a word, her eerie silence an expres-
sion of abiding grief. Hani, now 38, also grieves. And the prospect of Palestinian autonomy brought him no joy because he cannot swallow Arafat’s acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist on sacred Muslim soil. “I tell my friends that those who lie under the ground condemn Arafat,” said Hani. “This is not a peace between the people, but a peace between the leaders.”
Five minutes’ drive away through the Third World squalor of Gaza City, with its overflowing sewers, rutted roads and stinking uncollected garbage, another mother, Faikhi Nofel, mourns another son. Naim Nofel was 17 in 1989 when he and his friends pelted an Israeli petrol tanker with rocks on their way to school. A security guard opened fire and Naim, the eldest of Faikhi’s nine children still living at home, died on the spot. His photograph sits in a silver frame on a shelf between a pair of stuffed eagles. But the first thing one sees upon entering the family’s one-storey house is a poster of a beaming Arafat in his black-and-white checkered kafßyeh. “I think Arafat did the right thing,” said Nofel, 45. “God willing, the sacrifice of my son will not be in vain.” She added: “I shall always feel sad about losing my son, but I hope things are going to be better now. It’s a question of how the Israelis deal with us.”
Local Palestinian journalists estimate that 40 per cent of the Gaza Strip’s 720,000 Arabs support Arafat’s mainstream Fatah nationalist group and the peace agreement. Another 20 per cent back the rejectionist Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, which have spearheaded the six-year-old intifadeh, or uprising, in the occupied territories. The rest are undecided.
The residents of Gaza, about 450,000 of them refugees from the 1948 war that followed the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel, have never ruled themselves. The British drove the Turks out of the 125-squaremile sandy strip on the Mediterranean in 1917 and stayed until 1948. The Egyptians ruled the area for the next 19 years. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel captured Gaza as well as the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Now, the Israeli-PLO peace accord gives the long-subjugated Gazans their first chance at self-rule.
It will be a difficult task. The economy of the tiny enclave—it is among the most densely populated territories on earth—is in shambles. Simcha Bahiri, an Israeli economist who produced a recent study of the occupied territories, estimates Gaza’s unemployment rate at 40 per cent. Per capita income is about $1,700 a year, compared with nearly $16,000 in Israel. And Gazans earn 30 per cent less than their West Bank brethren. The World Bank has proposed a $5.7billion aid plan for Gaza and the West Bank over the next 10 years. But the plan only covers improvements to essential public services; more money will be needed to build up industries.
Bank officials have scheduled meetings in Washington this week to discuss ways of co-ordinating international aid.
The Gazans are bemused at the very thought of running their own affairs. The usual response when asked if their lives are going to improve is “inshallah” (if God wills it). They are fatalistic, and not a little apprehensive. They want the Israelis off their backs, but it is hard for the refugees to abandon the hope of returning one day to their lost towns and villages inside Israel. And they worry that after the occupying army has withdrawn, Arab will turn against Arab.
The more optimistic residents expect autonomy to put money in their pockets, or at least to bring them work. Said Muhammad Siam, a 49-year-old unemployed carpenter: “My son was shot twice in the legs during the intifadeh. We heard all the time that the PLO would pay him compensation. Perhaps it will come now.” Muhammad Kafarna, 25, used to work in a Tel Aviv shirt factory. ‘Things are going to get better,” he argued. “I’m not worried that I won’t find a job. Arafat will provide. I trust in Allah up above and Arafat down below.”
In the crumbling Shati camp, home to more than 40,000 refugees, Nasser al-Shram, a 27-year-old cab driver, expresses the resignation of many poor Gazans. Asked if he expects improvement under the autonomy agreement, he shrugs and says, “Inshallah." Nasser, a married man with four children, lives with 12 members of his extended family in a house measuring less than 1,100 square feet. He has no answer about the kind of future he sees for his children. When Nasser and a bunch of his friends, loafing one day outside a gas station, are pressed to describe their hopes and dreams, none of them seemed to even understand the question. One finally retorted: “What do you want me to say? That I want to be a pilot?” On the drive away from the refugee camp, Abu-Hassna, the local Arab reporter and interpreter, reflected: “People here are not used to having a future. They live from day to day, without ambitions. They are used to trusting in Allah. They have forgotten that they have a right to dream.”
Dr. Eyad Sarraj, director of the internationally-funded Gaza Community Mental Health Program, fears that the ArafafRabin deal may provoke an individual and collective breakdown. Sarraj, a British-trained psychiatrist and member of the Palestinian team in the Washington peace talks, urged the leadership not to pitch expectations too high. “Otherwise,” he maintained, “people here will go into grief. They have lived for nearly 50 years on the dream of liberating all of Palestine. Now, they have to come to terms with the fact that Palestine is going to be shared
THE ROAD AHEAD
OCT. 13,1993: The Declaration of Principles on Palestinian self-rule takes effect.
DEC. 13,1993: Israel begins withdrawing its military forces from the Gaza Strip and Jericho area. The five-year interim period of Palestinian self-rule officially begins.
APR. 13,1994: Latest date for Israel to complete its military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho.
JULY 13,1994: Latest date for elections for a Palestinian council to govern Gaza and the West Bank.
DEC. 13,1995: Latest date for talks to start on a permanent agreement on the status of the West Bank and Gaza, including Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, borders and security.
DEC. 13,1998: A permanent agreement to take effect.
with Israel.” Added Sarraj: “The danger is that this realization will be followed by disappointment. There will be a period when nothing happens. In the short term, there won’t be more money, there won’t be more jobs.” Sarraj sees violence between fellow Arabs as the most alarming consequence of a failed peace agreement. “In the earlier years of the uprising,” the psychiatrist explained, “people were Palestinians, first and second. Now, other identities are becoming a more secure base: your family, your tribal or political faction, your religion. If we don’t have the necessary leadership, these divisions will deepen. And this will lead to fighting.” He rates the chances of such an explosion at fifty-fifty. Said Sarraj: “I can’t allow myself to be more hopeful than that, knowing the facts.”
On the drive back to the Erez checkpoint, the gateway to Israel, interpreter AbuHassna shared the doctor’s anxiety. “I don’t want things to go wrong here as they did after the collapse of communism in Russia,” he said. “Our leaders must tell the people that it’s going to take time, that we’re not going to solve all our problems in one year. Otherwise, people will be bitterly disillusioned. There could be a great wave of violence—not against the occupation this time, but against our own Palestinian administration.” That is certainly not what Clinton had in mind when he coaxed Arafat and Rabin to shake hands before the world’s television cameras. But it stands as a clear warning to the international community that symbolic acts are not enough to ensure lasting peace in the Middle East. As Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev of Russia, co-sponsor of the Washington peace talks, said at the signing ceremony last week: “I think it’s really time to rejoice, but no time for euphoria. Unfortunately, this is only the first step—major but first step—on the long, long road.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.