Five million Arabs who don't exist

Shimon Peres and Yassar Arafat may come to an agreement, but that will not bring peace

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In the Beit Agron, the Israeli equivalent of a ministry of information, a new brochure can be found on the shelves for visitors who need some statistics about the region. Produced by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, it states that Israel is "bordered by Lebanon in the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan in the east, Egypt to the southwest ..." At no point does the document suggest that there is an occupied Palestinian Arab land between Jerusalem and Jordan. It does not even suggest that Yasser Arafat's Gaza, which very definitely lies between Israel and Egypt, exists. Nor does the word "Palestinian" appear in the text.

Indeed, an Israeli official explained to the Independent last week that Palestinian Arabs were not included in the document's population figure of 5,328,000 inhabiting the area between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. He took it for granted, however, that the 1,958,000 telephone subscribers listed in the document included Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus are the Palestinians - whose future will decide peace or war in the Middle East - depicted by the Israeli foreign ministry: as telephone subscribers, but not as people. This symbolises all too well the near- schizoid attitude which many - though, thankfully, not all - Israelis demonstrate towards those with whom they apparently wish to be friends.

Last night, when yet another PLO-Israeli signature was hourly expected, Gaza had been sealed off yet again by the Israelis, this time because they objected to statements made there by opponents of the "peace process".

You only have to read the Jerusalem Post to comprehend this irreconcilable approach to peace. News reports on the front page record without comment the endless and inevitably vain meetings between the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, to maintain the "peace process" after more than a year of delays. Yet feature articles on inside pages talk of Palestinian "terrorism" and the steadfastness of Jewish settlers to cling to land that has been appropriated (for which read "stolen") from its Arab owners.

And while the belt of Jewish settlements continues to be built around Arab east Jerusalem, CNN - at its most journalistically biased - refers to the conflict between the Arabs, who are losing their land and the Jews, who are taking it as "conflicting heritage claims"; all the while, of course, claiming that the "peace prcoess" is "back on track", even when it is palpably collapsing. In the West Bank, Israeli plain-clothes squads continue to shoot down Palestinian "terrorists" while another group of "terrorists" - Jewish this time - regularly opens fire on the Jerusalem home of Faisal Husseini, one of the most distinguished (and one of the few honest) senior PLO officials.

Last week alone, Husseini's house came under fire three times from Israelis brandishing pistols and Uzi sub-machine guns, provoking the US consul, Ed Abington, to issue a highly unusual statement. "I do not understand why the [Israeli] government does not curb those who cross over the line of civil disobedience," he said. "Where is law and order? ... If a Palestinian did this [to an Israeli], you know what the reaction would be."

And, of course, we do know what the reaction would be. For Yasser Arafat himself is now under increasing pressure to treat not just militant Palestinian groups but any Palestinian opposed to the American-Israeli peace with equal ruthlessness. Equipped now with a clutch of intelligence services, secret courts and a set of press laws that, in effect, ban freedom of speech in local Palestinian newspapers, the PLO leader, who once claimed that Palestine would be the first real democracy in the Arab world, is rapidly turning into another Israeli satrap, as frightening and as weak as General Antoine Lahd, the cashiered Lebanese army officer who runs "security" at the other end of Israel.

Just as Lahd was reduced to claiming that his presence in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon "relieved the worst effects of the Israeli presence," so Arafat's men are saying the same thing. "Which would the Palestinians rather have in Gaza?" one of them asked me last week. "The Israeli occupation of a year ago? Or the PLO's presence now?"

That the PLO should now promote itself as an alternative to Israeli rule - rather than the aspiration of all Palestinians in the occupied territories - tells its own story. "The problem for the PLO is that it feels psychologically, geographically and physically trapped," Hanan Ashrawi, the most persuasive of all Palestinian spokespersons, said this week. "The greater the pressure from the Israelis upon the PLO, the more the PLO loses credibility and legitimacy with the Palestinians. The more the PLO shows it can deliver on the Israelis' principle demand - security - the less it is accepted by its own people."

The latest talks, at Taba, between Arafat and Peres suggest that Palestinian elections will be held before Israeli military "redeployment" - meaning that Palestinians will be asked to vote for their future rulers while occupation troops are in the streets outside the polling booths. What kind of democracy is this going to produce?

Ashrawi insists that while the "peace process" may "fizzle out", it has brought both the Palestinians and the Israelis "face to face with themselves". It has forced the Israelis as well as the Palestinians to ask if they really want peace. Yet travelling back that same day from Ashrawi's home in Ramallah, my "service" taxi - packed with Palestinian civilians - was stopped at an Israeli police checkpoint outside Jerusalem. The cop did not ask for the driver's papers - he shouted for them. "Passport," he screamed at me. When the driver could not produce a working fire extinguisher in his vehicle, the Israeli policeman cursed him and the passengers muttered obscenities at the policeman. I didn't show my passport - because the policeman did not want to see it. He wanted to shout at the occupants of the car. And as we drove away from his checkpoint, the obscenities continued among the passengers. For the occupants of our taxi that hot afternoon, the "peace process" died.

There are few Palestinians who do not realise that Arafat made peace out of impotence rather than strength. Politically bankrupt after his espousal of Saddam Hussein, he made peace with Israel in much the same way as King Hussain made peace a year later; because he was weak. To make peace with Israel, the Arabs are learning, one must be exhausted, ineffectual, powerless. Is Syria weak enough to make peace now? Or is she too strong? Must Syria, too, be humbled, brought to the negotiating table by some swift, provoked military action by Israel (in Lebanon, no doubt)? This is the question many Syrians are now asking, aware that their president appears to have no intention of bowing to the Israelis without the return of all Golan.

It is a deeply disturbing notion. For, from his palace above Damascus, President Assad can now look south towards a land where Palestinians are masters of their destiny in name rather than in fact, where the bulldozer of peace has produced a new level of double standards, where "peace" has become a synonym for compliance and where cynicism is fast overtaking the desire for peace among both Palestinians and Israelis. What incentive is left for the Arabs who have not yet signed a peace treaty?

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