Gaza awaits visit by Yasser Arafat Historic return, harsh reality

July 01, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- At first, it seems a recipe for disaster:

Take a poor, dirty sprawl of 800,000 people, with overcrowded schools, underequipped hospitals and high unemployment. Remove the government that has held the place together for 27 years and replace it with novices. Add a police force with little experience but lots of guns. Fold in a simmering political feud. Stir at your own risk.

Such is the formula for Palestinian self-rule awaiting a landmark visit by PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat today on the 9-by-24-mile Gaza Strip. Little wonder that Mr. Arafat has decided to make his home in the West Bank town of Jericho, where Palestinians have also ruled sincetheir May agreement with Israel.

But the fortunes of Gaza, not Jericho, will determine whether Israel will be willing to turn over more occupied land for self-rule and, perhaps someday, a Palestinian state. That is one reason Mr. Arafat chose Gaza for his historic first visit to the self-rule area, according to adviser Nabil Shaath.

Mr. Arafat is to make his triumphant return to the Gaza Strip from Egypt about 2:30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EDT), ending decades of exile, mostly in Lebanon and Tunisia, where he waged the Palestinians' campaign for their own homeland.

L "Jericho is a symbol," Mr. Shaath said, "Gaza is a reality."

It is a daunting reality.

Tax collectors desperate for revenue have no records. More than half the water and one-third of the electricity disappear into illegal hookups. Some 30,000 cars and hundreds of donkey carts navigate broken streets without a single traffic light. Uncollected garbage and open sewers threaten the water supply.

Yet, strange things happen in the euphoria of new freedom. Six weeks after the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers, optimism has taken root in the squalor. Instead of dissolving into warring factions with the departure of a common enemy, as many predicted, rival Palestinians have remained tenuously united against the possibility of failure.

Israeli leaders, watching from a safe distance, have been impressed.

"The situation is far better than had been expected," said Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. "The atmosphere is one of joy and celebration."

Some of that joy can be found in the words and actions of DawoudAhil, who on a recent afternoon stood on Gaza City's main street. Behind him, workers poured concrete into the foundation for a 15-story office building.

"Now we are living on hope," said Mr. Ahil, owner of the property. "We expect that peace will make good business, a good future. I tell you, we have no other choice."

Mr. Ahil bought the tract two years ago, and it wasn't cheap. Since peace came, the value has doubled. It is one of perhaps 30 properties he's bought in Gaza in the past 20 years.

"I knew there would be some good here someday," he said, "because war never continues forever."

'This is my land'

Indeed, if the Palestinians have learned anything from 27 years of occupation, it's patience. They may need similar forbearance in waiting for their new government to make progress against Gaza's problems. Mr. Ahil said he believes that Palestinians will be willing to wait now that their own people are governing.

"This is your government, so you have to respect it, even if you are not in line with it," he says. Mr. Ahil was born in Gaza, but through the occupation he has lived in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"In a few years I would like to move my family here," he says. In Saudi Arabia we are foreigners. We cannot buy land. We cannot open a business. But here, this is my land."

If Mr. Ahil represents Gaza's hopes, some of its fears are evident at the office of Dr. Mohammed Jeddy, director of a school system for 105,000 students.

For now, students attend school in two shifts because there aren't enough classrooms. The birth rate has outstripped the capacity of virtually every government service during the years of occupation. Hospitals that served a population of 350,000 with 800 beds in 1967, for example, now serve 450,000 additional people with only 60 additional beds.

Mr. Jeddy, who has overseen the schools through the past 16 years, figures he will need an additional $10 million per year -- a 50 percent increase -- to build enough schools, buy enough books and pay enough teachers to improve standards.

But the financial battles are likely to be tame compared with the ideological fight. There is pressure for rapid change, particularly from fundamentalist Muslims, and Mr. Jeddy is against it.

"It is not wise to make a revolution in the curriculum," he said. "Some will say that because the Israelis have withdrawn, what is the need of Hebrew? But old men such as me will say it is wrong to stop, because there will still be coordination between us and them. Economic coordination. Health coordination.

Signs of accommodation

If poorly handled, it could tear Gaza apart. But signs of accommodation are appearing in important places.

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