Clinton visit triggers a new `intifada'

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The Independent Online
ON A WARM winter evening 11 years ago the Palestinian intifada began in Gaza when an Israeli truck hit a car, killing four Palestinian labourers. More than any other event it was the intifada that ended the Israeli occupation and turned Gaza and the Palestinian towns of the West Bank into autonomous Palestinian enclaves ruled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians celebrated the anniversary of the uprising of 1987 yesterday. Rioting spread across the West Bank, leaving one Palestinian dead and at least 80 wounded. As bypasses leading to Israeli settlements were closed by Palestinian stone throwers, Israeli officials said the real boundaries of a future Palestinian state were being defined by where it was safe for Israelis to travel and not by diplomatic agreement.

Mr Arafat was in jubilant mood. Speaking in Hebron, he said: "They used to say I was dreaming when I said we will all pray in Jerusalem. We say that day is near." It is a moment of triumph for the Palestinian leader.

Next Monday the US President, Bill Clinton, arrives in Gaza to address members of the Palestinian National Council, all of whom belong to organisations previously denounced as "terrorists". His visit brings America close to de facto recognition of a Palestinian state.

"In the last two months Clinton has spent more time with Arafat than with any other world leader," says one European diplomat. "Once he has crossed the bridge by going to Gaza, anyone else can do it. It will be difficult for the Americans to demonise the Palestinians as they did in the past."

In Gaza, people have a more practical view of the possible benefits of President Clinton's visit. Khalil Habib is a former flower exporter specialising in long-stemmed carnations, which are easy to grow in Gaza. His problem is that the enclave is sealed off from the outside world and all his flowers have to go through Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on their way to the Netherlands.

"Once they kept my flowers at the airport for security checks for two days," recalls Mr Habib. "They were all ruined. The importer in Holland refused to accept them. He told me, `I can't deal with you because of your political situation. Come back when you have an independent state'."

Mr Habib stopped exporting flowers in 1996. Now he wonders if the new Gaza airport, where President Clinton is to land, will enable him to get back into business. He notes pessimistically that security at the airport is still in the hands of the Israelis.

Mr Habib's friend Rajai owns a small restaurant called Pizza-Pizza in the centre of Gaza, where he was born, though he spent years in California. He opened three-and-a-half years ago and ever since has been battling to stay in business in the face of successive Israeli closures. "Sometimes I can't bring in the cardboard containers for take-away pizzas," he says. "When the closure goes on for a long time I run out of cheese."

One of Rajai's grievances is that he wants to open another pizza restaurant in Ramallah, a Palestinian town on the West Bank. At the moment he cannot get there often enough to start the business. In theory a safe passage should be opened between Gaza and the West Bank under the terms of the US-brokered Wye Agreement, whereby Palestinians could travel freely, but diplomats are pessimistic about it opening soon.

At the office of the UN Special Co-ordinator for the Occupied Territories, Salem Ajluni, head of its economic and social monitoring unit, gives figures explaining why most of the one million Palestinians in Gaza are cynical about the grand ceremony which is planned for next week. "Real wages in Gaza and the West Bank have declined by 40-50 per cent since 1990," he says. "Unemployment is up three times what it was in the 1980s."

But it is not economic complaints that are fuelling this week's protests and riots. Lying on a bed in a crowded tent in a park in central Gaza is Hisham Abdel Raziq, minister for prisoner affairs in the Palestinian Authority. He himself was a prisoner for 21 years and is now on hunger strike with 65 others in sympathy with 2,400 prisoners in Israeli jails.

Palestinian scepticism is easy to understand, but even before he steps off his plane President Clinton's visit has already brought to the boil three simmering crises. They are between Israel and the US, Israel and the Palestinians and within the Israeli ruling coalition. Fearing that Mr Clinton's presence will legitimise a Palestinian state, Israeli cabinet ministers have said he should not come. Rafael Eitan, the Israeli Agriculture Minister, who once referred to Palestinians as "cockroaches", said: "This is a bad visit and I call upon Mr Clinton not to come."

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, said baldly: "If he wants he'll come; if not, not." Mr Netanyahu is in a curious position. He needs to keep the extreme right within his coalition. It wants to frighten him into not implementing the next Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank, by threatening to withdraw support for his government. But it does not want to overthrow him.

He conciliates the extremists with rhetorical attacks on the Palestinians, but he will probably implement Wye to avoid offending the US.