WORLD

HIGH HOPES

ERIC SILVER June 20 1994
WORLD

HIGH HOPES

ERIC SILVER June 20 1994

HIGH HOPES Palestinians await the arrival of Yasser Arafat

A Palestinian peasant woman brought her three-year-old son coughing and wheezing to Dr. Mamduh Nojum’s office in Jericho last week. The Arab physician diagnosed bronchial pneumonia and prescribed a drug imported from England. The mother begged him to give her a less expensive, although less effective, locally made medication. Around the comer from the 33-year-old doctor’s office, a brand new sign proudly proclaims a “Palestinian National Health Service.” It has staff, the same Arab officials who ran local medical services under an Israeli administrator during 27 years of occupation. And it has a building. What it does not have—one month after the Israelis withdrew and handed over the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian National Authority— is the money to pay wages and provide health care for those who cannot afford to pay. “The economic state of the people here is catastrophic,” said Dr. Nojum. “Until one month ago, if they were sick they went to an Israeli hospital. If they needed drugs, they got them. Now, there is no hospital, no drugs, no equipment.” The solution? “We need infrastructure,” said Dr. Nojum. “The problem is not in our leaders’ hands. The problem is in the hands of the Americans and other rich countries.”

WORLD

The doctor’s complaint is repeated throughout Jericho, a 25-square-mile enclave with 14,000 Arab residents, and the Gaza Strip, where 750,000 Arabs and 6,000 Jewish settlers are jammed into 140 square miles. The umbrella Palestinian National Authority has already deployed 2,500 soldiers and policemen in Gaza and 800 in Jericho. And it is opening various government offices. But a hands-on 24-member council has yet to be appointed to administer the autonomous areas. And $3.2 billion in aid, pledged by international donors last October to make Palestinian self-rule a reality over the next five years, is only trickling in. In a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma, the donors will not pay up until an authority is in place, with orderly accounting procedures, to handle the subsidies, while the authority cannot function before it receives the money. Meanwhile, frustrated Arabs in Jericho and Gaza are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), who is still headquartered in Tunis.

When Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho on May 18, the children of the six-and-a-half-year intifadeh, or uprising, against Israeli occupation, sped the soldiers on their way with V-for-victory signs and a farewell barrage of stones. The euphoria has not yet given way to disenchantment, but it is decidedly muted. The Palestinians are waiting for practical changes in their daily lives. In the street, if not around the dinner tables of the skeptical middle classes, Arafat remains a national hero. He is the man who got the Israelis off their backs and negotiated the release of about 5,000 of the 9,600 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, some of whom returned home last week. The opponents of the peace agreement, Islamic fundamentalists and radical nationalists, have been pushed to the margin. But the PLO chairman, whose return to the newly liberated territories is expected by the end of this month, cannot afford to sit back. “The people want Arafat,” says Abdel Wahab, 55, busily cutting uniforms for the new police and army trade in the tailor’s shop he has run for 30 years in Jericho. “He is the leader of all the Palestinians. We are grateful to Arafat, and we expect that he will bring the money with him.”

In fact, last week, donor nations agreed to supply the Palestinians with $54 million in immediate aid to cover the salaries of about 15,000 police, civil servants, teachers and hospital % personnel for three months. Addition| al funds earmarked for developmen2 tal projects and training are expected o to follow. The infusion of capital will ^ come none too soon. Since May, oria nearly two-thirds of the 110,000 Pales-

tinian day laborers who used to commute from the West Bank and Gaza to work on Israeli building sites, farms and services, have been barred from crossing the old green-line border. Israel restricted the points of entry after Islamic fundamentalists shot dead two Israeli soldiers guarding a checkpoint.

Akram al-Haytham was one of the Gaza commuters. Two weeks after the Israelis shut the gates, the 36-year-old father of 10 was running out of money. To feed his family, all living in two rooms in a refugee camp, he started his own business: a snack bar on the Mediterranean beach, south of Gaza City. The beach has become a symbol of the transformation in the strip since the Israelis pulled out. From the outbreak of the intifadeh, Gaza had lived under a nightly curfew from 9 p.m. till 4 a.m. Now, hundreds of families make the most of the beach’s fine yellow sand and cool sea breezes, often staying till midnight. Akram did not need much capital for his snack bar, just enough for a lean-to kitchen and half a dozen plastic tables and chairs. And he has plenty of customers for coffee. The problem is that they have little money to buy the kebabs and pastries he also wants to sell them. On a good day, he makes about 30 shekels ($14) profit. ‘We are only at the beginning of the road,” he shrugs. “Let’s hope things will get better.” That sentiment is shared by bank manager Abed Hamdan who says that he has had many inquiries from West Bank businessmen contemplating building factories, hotels or new housing in Jericho. But they are not yet committing themselves. “So far,” said Hamdan, “they haven’t asked for any loans. They are just exploring. They are expecting things to happen, they are looking to the future. But they are waiting to see how it develops.”

In fact, many Palestinians are waiting for Arafat to convince them that five years of limited autonomy before a comprehensive settlement is reached, or socalled Gaza-Jericho-first, will not turn into Gaza-Jericho-last. “How can I live in peace in Jericho,” asks Nabil Issawi, who was arrested seven times by the Israelis, “while in Hebron and Ramallah they are still killing people every day?” Issawi, 33, is a member of Hamas, the radical Islamic resistance movement. He says that he would welcome Arafat to Jericho, if only to urge him to stick to the Koran. “It is written,” Issawi insists, “that there is no peace with the Jews.” Such fundamentalism is no more than a murmur below the placid surface of Jericho, a sleepy market town 250 m below sea level. It is more strident in Gaza, where Hamas gunmen have attacked Israeli soldiers and settlers and recently executed two alleged Arab collaborators. “The police are here to serve the people,” reads one of their wall slogans, “not to protect the settlers.” So far, Hamas members have refrained from challenging the armed men of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), dispatched from their bases in neighboring Arab countries to police the new territories. But the Muslim extremists have not given up and they have not been disarmed.

The soldier-policemen are doing an efficient, disciplined job—within the limits of the current transitional phase. Although Gaza is awash with stolen Israeli cars, identifiable by brown “temporary” licence plates, the police have yet to arrest any of the thieves. And it is still not clear what law they would be tried under. But at least the traffic cops are untangling Gaza’s notoriously congested roads, without throwing their weight around.

ERIC SILVER in Jericho

One of Jericho’s new lawmen is Immad Shawwa, a 35-year-old sergeant in the camouflage fatigues and red beret of the Al Aqsa brigade. Shawwa was — born in Gaza and joined the PLA after studying English in Toronto, where he lived from 1981 to 1988. Because barracks have not yet been built for the Palestinian police, he sleeps on a mattress beside his guard post on the roof of Jericho’s town hall. He smiles at the incongruity. “I expected to be a soldier,” Shawwa confided. “I was ready to die for Palestine. I still am. But I carry out my orders. If they send me on a joint patrol with an Israeli, I’ll go. I’m giving a chance for peace. He’s giving a chance for peace. I believe we both feel the same about it.” For all the imponderables—the Palestinians’ untested capacity to govern themselves; the time bomb of Jewish settlers, still entrenched in Gaza and on the fringes of Jericho; the smouldering, unreconciled ambitions of Islamic fanaticism—both peoples can only pray that it stays that way.