Middle East Talks: Palestinians hold out for statehood

IN THE six years since Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accords on the White House lawn, the Palestinians have gained more than the pessimists expected ... but less than the optimists hoped.

Before the breakthrough of 13 September 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organisation was doubly exiled, from its native land and from the Middle East. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 forced Mr Arafat to sail across the Mediterranean and set up shop in distant Tunis.

In the chancelleries of the West, particularly the United States, which refused to admit Palestinian officials, the PLO was a pariah. In Israel, it was anathema. Abie Nathan, the Jewish state's most persistent peace campaigner, went to prison merely for meeting PLO "terrorists."

All that changed within months of the Washington ceremony. Mr Arafat returned home in triumph and was voted president. The Palestinians elected a legislative council. They set up ministries in Gaza and the West Bank town of Ramallah. They recruited their own police force, launched their own airline, issued their own postage stamps (and, incidentally, imported their own corrupt bureaucracy and homegrown police brutality).

The Israeli army withdrew from the major Palestinian cities. Once the evacuations agreed at the Wye Plantation last October are completed, 95 per cent of Gaza Strip land and 43 per cent of the West Bank, with a population of about two million, will be under Palestinian rule. According to Israeli figures, more than 100,000 diaspora Palestinians have been allowed back.

After decades of staying home at night for fear of arbitrary arrest and harassment, families throng the beach cafes of Gaza, the restaurants of Ramallah, the Turkish baths of Nablus. Jericho boasts a casino, where Israelis and well-connected Palestinians lose their shirts 24 hours a day.

Above all, on the credit side of the ledger, Palestinians have established the right to a state. The world endorses it. Bill Clinton set the seal of legitimacy with a presidential visit to Gaza. Israeli public opinion does not like the idea, but is resigned to it.

There is, however, a debit side too. By recognising Israel, Mr Arafat signed away more than half of the homeland. The refugees will not be going back to Jaffa. The hundreds of thousands still rotting in Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian camps have yet to win a right to return even to the West Bank and Gaza.

More immediately, peace has paid few, if any, economic dividends for the Palestinians. Salem Ajlouni, a United Nations economist, estimates real incomes (pounds 1,000 annually per capita) at 10-15 per cent lower than they were before Oslo. Unemployment was running last year at 15 per cent, nearly three times the rate in 1993. Mr Ajlouni said: "The main cause is the Israeli restriction on the mobility of workers and products." However, 110,000 day-labourers are now crossing to jobs in Israel, only 10,000 below the 1993 figure.

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 Palestinian prisoners are still in Israeli jails. And Ehud Barak's Labour government is reluctant to release them because they might have "blood on their hands".