Cairo deal brings little joy to Gaza: Changes on the map fail to please those on the ground

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AT AN intersection in the dusty streets of Gaza City, Israeli troops with the green berets of the border police were flagging down the trickle of cars which manoeuvred past the potholes. Two Palestinians were made to stand facing a wall, palms touching the plaster, as they were expertly frisked for hidden weapons. This is the daily routine of life in the occupied territories, the daily task of the occupier and the daily humiliation of those seeking an end to the occupation.

There were no celebrations in the streets at the signing the previous night in Cairo of an agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel. Nearly five months ago, by contrast, after the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, signed the historic accord on 13 September in Washington with Israel, there was widespread rejoicing in the streets of the Gaza Strip.

'Everyone is waiting for practical changes on the ground,' said one Gaza resident yesterday resignedly. 'Our concerns are not political agreements but everyday life.'

The 12-page Cairo agreement is in effect the beginning of the implementation of the 13 September accord. It is thus the diplomatic counterpart of the Palestinian intifada, which began in December 1987, aiming to end the Israeli occupation and disengage the Palestinian national entity from Israel.

So when Mr Arafat announced on Wednesday night that as a result of the agreement, Palestine was now on the map, he was articulating what this agreement implies. He may have made many concessions. He may have wasted two months in a vain attempt to win concessions. He has engaged in several days of intense negotiations in Cairo with the Israelis. But he has at least shown he cannot be pushed around.

The main achievement is that an agreement has been reached, however unsatisfactory. And that, in time, he can take to his increasingly sceptical public, among whom his support is being eroded.

The agreement is only partial, as well as late. It covers mostly security issues. It does not deal with a range of economic matters, or with the size of the Jericho area from which Israeli troops are to withdraw. The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has said these could take another month to resolve.

Describing the agreement as 'an important step forward', Mr Rabin said: 'In my assessment, another month will be needed to complete the details of the agreement. It could take a little more. Remember, there are no sacred dates.'

Indeed not. The September accord laid down a timetable of beginning the Israeli withdrawal on 13 December, with its completion on 13 April. The 13 December date passed because Mr Arafat questioned many of the provisions within the Oslo accord.

Now senior Israeli military officers have been quoted as saying that the Israeli army could withdraw from the designated areas in one month, rather than the four months originally agreed. The Israelis could thus still meet the 13 April deadline. Most of the details merely flesh out what was agreed in Oslo, namely that Israel will remain responsible during the interim period for external security. Israel will exercise final control over both the borders and the border crossing points. The 3,000 to 4,000 Jews who have settled in the Gaza Strip will enjoy special protection from the Israeli army, which will have the right to hot pursuit if any settler traffic is attacked.

The one concession to the Palestinians is enshrined in paragraph q1(d). This calls for maintaining 'the dignity of persons passing though the border crossings'. The Israelis want a hands-off approach, leaving the physical searching of Palestinians at the borders to the Palestinian police. However, they have a veto on who enters the areas, to ensure that Palestinians not resident in the occupied territories do not cross within this interim phase.

On Jericho, Mr Arafat did obtain Israeli acceptance that the Muslim pilgrimage site of Nebi Mousa, off the main road to Jerusalem, would come under Palestinian auspices.

Mr Arafat also surprisingly allowed the use of the word 'terrorist' in the Cairo agreement. Paragraph 3(e)(1) talks about 'a passenger who was involved in terrorist or planned terrorist activity.'

(Map omitted)