Palestinian delegates to peace talks take case to their own people

November 14, 1991|By Carol Morello | Carol Morello,Knight-Ridder News Service

RAMALLAH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Hanan Ashrawi, the woman whose poignant eloquence captivated the world at Madrid, did not flinch when she faced the angry woman in Ramallah.

"What have we achieved so far?" demanded the woman in the crowd jammed into a school auditorium.

People had come to hear the five returned Palestinian delegates from the Mideast peace conference plead for the same respect from their own people that they are demanding from the Israelis. This gathering was the first of a series of town meetings over a period of two weeks, in preparation for the bilateral peace talks that are expected to open soon.

"Let's drop the olive branch and get ready with the guns!" said the woman.

Ms. Ashrawi, the delegation's spokeswoman in Madrid, leveled her best English literature professor's glare at the woman.

"The Palestinian people have been struggling for the last 40 years," Ms. Ashrawi said. "With guns, the Israelis are winning all the time.

"Now we are entering a political struggle that is different and more difficult than the armed struggle. We should be patient in order to obtain a Palestinian state, the right of return, the right to self-determination.

"It's the first step on a long road."

The message is twofold, delegate Gassan al-Khatib said in an interview: to drum up support and caution patience.

"People are desperate and in need of any hope, even if it is a false one," he said. "We are in a process that might lead us to a peaceful solution. But it might fail. There are no guarantees."

The meetings are in stark contrast to the Israeli government's total lack of any effort to prepare its citizens for peace.

In part, the difference can be explained by the Palestinians' lack of radio or television to get their message across the way the Israelis can on state-owned media. And part of the explanation lies in the right-wing Israeli government's reluctance to enter a peace process that could result in its giving up part of the territories that it claims for security and ideological reasons.

While the Palestinians have been buoyed by the prospect of gaining a homeland, the Israeli public so far has not been caught up by the possibility of losing its fear.

Mr. Khatib said Palestinians need to address Israeli public opinion if they ever hope to sway the Israeli government toward conceding land for peace.

First, however, the negotiators must get their message across to their own constituents.

The meeting Tuesday expanded on the themes of Madrid, only far more frankly.

For one thing, there was no pretense that the delegates were not representing the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israel has refused to negotiate with the PLO, which it considers a terrorist organization.

"Anyone who thinks the PLO doesn't exist in the peace process is as blind as Shamir," said delegate Mamdouh al-Aker, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Mr. Khatib vowed that no agreements would be signed without consultations with the PLO.

The gap between the Israeli and Palestinian positions was starkly evident.

The Palestinians consistently refused to even use the word "autonomy," which they described as Israeli terminology. They said they would not accept mere control over schools and hospitals but were seeking a form of self-government that would lead to full-fledged Palestinian independence.

And they said the Palestinian uprising, the intifada, was not to be traded as a bargaining chip for an end to Jewish settlements in the territories -- something the Israelis have been equally adamant about refusing to halt.

The message, in the end, was equal parts defiance and conciliation.

Mr. Khatib warned that it was time to belie the Israeli criticism that Palestinians never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity.

"We will not allow the next generation to say we lost a chance," he said.

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