Palestine is reborn, says Arafat as Clinton opens Gaza to the world

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The Independent Online
HASSAN, a young Palestinian in Jabalya refugee camp, near the centre of Gaza city, was not happy as he waited for the Palestinian leadership to drop the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter. "I want the refugees to be able to go back before they change it."

These were not wise words on a day when Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was straining every nerve to make a success of the visit by President Bill Clinton to Gaza, the self-ruled Palestinian enclave. Eight plainclothes policemen removed Hassan for a quick interrogation over what he had said about Mr Clinton.

Palestinians in the streets of Gaza were sceptical. Ibrahim Ali, a money- changer, watched impassively as Hassan was arrested. "The Clinton visit may put us on the road to a state but it does more for [Arafat's] Palestinian Authority that it does for the people," he said. "Gaza is still just one big prison."

None of these doubts would have been evident to Mr Clinton when his helicopter landed at the newly opened Gaza international airport yesterday. Posters showed Mr Clinton and Mr Arafat, apparently hand-in-hand, with the slogan: "We Have A Dream".

"Except for Monica [Lewinsky], nobody loves President Clinton like Arafat," said a US diplomat cited by the Israeli press.

When Mr Clinton and Mr Arafat addressed the Palestinian leadership in the Shawwa centre later in the day, Mr Arafat several times enfolded the President's hands in his own. In words that cast light on the importance he invests in this visit, he repeated: "Palestine is reborn again, reborn again."

Palestinian police and soldiers made strenuous efforts to ensure nothing might spoil the rebirth. All the streets in central Gaza were closed to traffic and there were checkpoints every 200 yards on roads far from where the leaders were meeting.

A small boy, a Palestinian flag attached to his cycle, tried to ride along the road which goes past Mr Arafat's headquarters and was rapidly turned around by three soldiers with guns.

At the Shati refugee camp, where Hillary Clinton was mobbed by excited children, Lieutenant Subhi Azami, who grew up in Beirut and had fought against Israel's Lebanon invasion in 1982, was directing police and soldiers as they sealed off roads. He pointed out that Mrs Clinton, unlike her husband, had said she hoped the Palestinians would have their own state.

Looking at the narrow lanes and breeze-block houses, whose poverty a last-minute clean-up did not conceal, he said: "Maybe the Americans will see how we are suffering here." As he spoke, two Israeli jets soared overhead, emphasising the limits of Palestinian sovereignty.

The anxiety about security was as much American as Palestinian. Diplomats from the US embassy in Tel Aviv had moved to the Holiday Inn in Ashkelon, just up the coast in Israel, from there they commuted each day for weeks to organise the visit. None was allowed to spend one night in Gaza. "You've never seen such paranoia," one said.

Mr Arafat has walked down so many red carpets to meet foreign leaders in the past 30 years that the people of Gaza are dubious about how much good Mr Clinton's visit will do them. But for once their cynicism may be misplaced. On arriving, he said the Palestinians were free to "determine their own destiny on their own land". He cut a ribbon to open the airport, though it was opened with great fanfare several weeks ago.

Mr Arafat is relishing the change in US policy towards the Palestinians. Twenty years ago a US official, prematurely assigning the Palestine Liberation Organisation to its grave, said: "Bye, bye PLO". Yesterday Mr Clinton was addressing its leaders, all dressed in suits and uniforms.

"The Palestinians see it as the beginning of the fulfilment of a messianic vision and an independent state," wrote Hemi Shalev, an Israeli commentator. "They are drunk with the smell of the strategic revolution they have carried in their relations with the American government."

Mr Arafat's strategy has been to agree to everything the Americans wanted and yesterday he got his reward. In October he signed the Wye Agreement, under which he will get back only 13 per cent of the West Bank, which means Israel will still hold a third of the Gaza Strip and 60 per cent of the West Bank. Mr Clinton praised the Palestinians for still negotiating when they had good reasons "for walking away". And for the first time he sympathetically mentioned Palestinian grievances such as prisoners held by Israel, Jewish settlements, land confiscation and demolition of Palestinian homes. He compared the grief of children of Palestinian prisoners to that of children of Israelis killed fighting Palestinians.

None of this will be good news for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, whose delay implementing the Oslo accords is blamed by many Israelis for changing US attitudes. There was something plaintive in the way Mr Clinton told the Palestinians they should revoke clauses in their charter not to please Israel's government "but to touch the people of Israel".

He may suspect the Israeli withdrawal from another 5 per cent of the West Bank, scheduled for Friday, is not going to take place. Mr Netanyahu is fighting for his political life: he needs the hard right's support to save his coalition in a confidence vote next week and he will not get it if the pull-out goes ahead.

Palestinians in Jabalya camp may be right to wonder how many of the fine words spoken in Gaza yesterday will turn into reality.