Palestinians welcome exiles back, but almost nothing they need is there

May 06, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian youths punctured the air with automatic gunfire yesterday to celebrate the return of Hamdi el-Rifi from 23 years in prison and exile.

But inside his father's house, the popular Palestinian leader was worried that there is no school in the Gaza Strip where his daughter, 10, can continue learning the French she acquired in their Tunisian exile.

Mr. el-Rifi is one of thousands of exiles, refugees and prisoners returning here following the official start Wednesday of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

The problems they bring -- where to send their children to school, what jobs can they do -- are among the vexing issues likely to delay quick implementation of the Israeli handover of those areas.

Palestinians and Israelis acknowledged yesterday that the dismantling of Israel's 27-year occupation of Jericho and the Gaza Strip will last several weeks, in order to sort out the problems.

Israel yesterday took further steps toward fulfilling the agreement signed in Cairo Wednesday by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It freed 600 Palestinian prisoners yesterday, bringing to about 1,000 the number released since Wednesday's ceremony.

The Gaza Prison was emptied overnight Wednesday, and workers began dismantling its equipment. Israeli army officers showed Palestinian police officials around the buildings they will take over.

But Palestinians greeted the changes impassively.

"They are already talking about delays. They will just keep delaying and delaying," complained Ziyad Matar, who runs a recreation center in the Gaza Strip.

Israelis were making the same complaints. After 27 years of occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israelis say they do not want to wait 21 days that the agreement provides for the transfer of authority.

"Israel has already prepared for the withdrawal," Ami Gluska, a spokesman for the Israeli negotiators, said yesterday. "Withdrawal is possible in a day or two. This is not the problem."

"They are not ready," a government spokesman, Uri Dromi, said of the Palestinians. "We are eager to pull out of Gaza. The partner is not 100 percent ready."

In the Gaza Strip yesterday, most Palestinians went about their daily routines with little acknowledgment of the change in governance that is supposed to be taking place. They are weary of what they consider broken promises and unhappy that Israeli troops won't pull back farther and faster.

But for others, yesterday was a time of hugs and reunions. Suhair el-Toluly, 34, kissed the cheeks of the stream of men who came to see him on the first day in five years he has been out of prison.

He was released Wednesday night with the first 200 Palestinian prisoners freed following the Cairo signing.

"My son still doesn't know his father," said Mr. el-Toluly of the child, who was born after he was imprisoned. "He saw me only at family visits behind a screen."

Israel has promised to release most of the 8,500 Palestinian prisoners it holds in its jails. Palestinians also expect the return of as many as 1,500 people deported by Israel. And they have agreed to discuss the cases of Palestinians who fled from their homes in 1967, estimated at 200,000 by Israel and 800,000 by the Palestinians.

Like many of the PLO cadres now emerging from Israeli prisons, Mr. el-Toluly has hard-earned credentials in the Palestinian resistance. He has been imprisoned seven times for 11 years -- virtually one-third of his life -- for belonging to the PLO's Fatah faction, until last year branded by Israel an illegal terrorist group.

And like some of those returning Palestinians, he holds a surprisingly moderate view.

"The agreement is the achievement of our peace," said Mr. el-Toluly, who said he learned Hebrew in prison in part to prepare for coexistence with Israel. "It's not complete peace yet, but we will overcome the problems."

Mr. el-Rifi, too, said he harbors no bitterness. A popular young leader in the resistance against Israel, he was imprisoned at 21 for a decade, and

then expelled to Algeria and Tunis.

His return to the Gaza Strip a week ago as a 44-year-old member of the Palestine National Council has prompted daily celebrations in which youths fired weapons into the air.

But Mr. el-Rifi, dressed in an immaculate suit and tie, was confronting on a personal level one of the obstacles to normalization that the Palestinians will have to overcome. There are few good schools in the Gaza Strip, none in which his daughter, Kefah, could continue her French lessons from Tunis, he said.

"The situation of the children's education is very bad," acknowledged Mr. el-Rifi. "If students want to succeed here, they do it by a knife or pistol. They threaten the teacher to give a good grade.

"Gaza is destroyed," he said. "There is no hospital, no streets, no plumbing, no lights, there is no labor going outside to bring in income.

"The people are not yet ready," he acknowledged of self-governance. "This will have to come with small steps."

Mr. Arafat wants to make Jericho, a city of 12,000 people, the seat of a Palestinian governing council. With aid pledged by the United States, Europe and Japan, he hopes to transform the Gaza Strip, overcrowded with nearly 900,000 Palestinians.

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