Israelis keep Hurd far away from Gaza squalor

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The Independent Online
ON A HILLSIDE yesterday, somewhere in the Israeli- occupied Gaza Strip, a group of men in pin-striped suits were waiting, nervously fingering their HMG briefcases and shuffling their feet in the sand. A cameraman was filming a lone shepherd herding his flock across the road. And United Nations officials were muttering about the chaos. 'Plans are changing all the time. With Israeli soldiers all around him he won't be able to see anything at all. He'll probably leave wondering what all the fuss is about.'

The radio crackled: 'He's past the checkpoint, he's on his way.' Moments later a line of Israeli jeeps pulled up and soldiers piled out. A tall silver-haired figure in a blue silk tie stepped out of a bulletproof Range Rover on to the wasteland.

Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary, had come to speak of his hopes for the future of the Palestinians of Gaza, as Israelis and Palestinians said talks would start again next week.

There were to be elections soon, which Britain would help monitor, said Mr Hurd at his 'photo-op' vantage point, selected by the Israeli army. Britain would help with training the Palestinians in community policing, he said, as the soldiers slouched on the jeeps. There needed to be 'changes on the ground' first, said Mr Hurd, peering across a rubbish dump to the nearest refugee camp, two miles away. As he spoke, a burnt-out bus was smouldering nearby on the side of the road. The only Palestinian who might have heard his words was the lone shepherd; he was now out of earshot.

Mr Hurd came to Gaza yesterday to make a little history. He was the first foreign minister to take the risk of venturing into the Strip in recent memory. He was not worried about the dangers, he insisted. 'People here live with it all their lives.'

But the Israeli army had no intention of allowing Mr Hurd to press Palestinian flesh. Instead they insisted on their own 'guided tour' - whisking the Foreign Secretary down Gaza's 'scenic' beach route, well away from its infamous squalor.

The intention of the visit, said a British diplomat, had been to keep a low profile - to appear neutral. Mr Hurd was to have been escorted quietly around the Gaza Strip by UN officials and local Palestinians. British official visits to the region have an unhappy recent history. On his last trip Mr Hurd was boycotted by Palestinian leaders, after Israeli politicians spread a story that Britain was against a Palestinian state. And David Mellor, the former foreign office minister, outraged Israelis during a visit by criticising an Israeli soldier - becoming a hero in the Gaza Strip.

This time Mr Hurd's Israeli army escort brought him little favour with local Palestinians. 'Why doesn't he go to a camp? Why does he go with the army?' asked one bystander wearing a Manchester United scarf as he watching Mr Hurd's whistle- stop visit to the British Council. 'If the British can do anything to help I suppose it is good. But most of us have lost patience with the peace process,' he added.

Mr Hurd put a brave face on his visit. He had not wanted to 'cause trouble', he said, commenting on the security fears. And through the tinted windows of his Range Rover he insisted he had felt the misery, the disease and the tension. Mr Hurd spoke to Gazan 'notables' and heard their complaints.

'This is no way to run a community of this number of people,' he told a press conference. 'Military occupation is a denial of human rights . . . We must go forward despite the uncertainties and difficulties. The way back is to what we see around us. It would be disaster,' he said, as the Israeli escort waited to rush him back to the checkpoint and as news broke that a Palestinian had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Gaza - the fourth Palestinian to die in clashes in Gaza this week.