Palestinians in Gaza savor a glimmer of sovereignty In this community of refugees, the dream of peace is elusive

December 14, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP — GAZA CITY, the Gaza Strip -- In the days of the Israeli occupation, the stone-throwing youths of the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli army forces turned this city's central square into a war zone. Today, white roses bloom in Palestine Square, Gazans rush to catch buses and Saber Jindia hangs American flags from his newly renovated coffee shop.

President Clinton comes to Gaza today as part of his three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is the first visit by an American president to the Gaza Strip, the seat of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and its 4-year-old experiment in self-rule. The trip was planned to coincide with the enactment of a key element of the land-for-security peace deal Clinton helped negotiate at the Wye River Plantation in October.

But Clinton's Gaza visit has taken on greater significance, for it is being viewed here and in Israel as a boost for Palestinian sovereignty.

"An American president coming, this means a lot for us," said Zuhair Al-Shawa, a Gaza City worker. "We hope by his visit, it will help solve our problems [here] and with the Israelis. His next visit will be under a Palestinian state."

Israel, which agreed to the president's attendance at a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Gaza, is now balking. At the meeting, PNC members are to reaffirm their 1996 decision to revoke sections of the Palestinian charter that call for the destruction of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced the idea of Clinton's appearance at the PNC meeting in Gaza when it was suggested during the Wye River talks. But a visit from the leader of the world's only superpower means ceremonies, honor guards, national anthems, flags waving -- all the trappings of statehood. Palestinian leaders recognize the opportunity before them.

"This is real recognition of the Palestinian right for their homeland and for their right of self-determination and the right of the Palestinian state," said Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian lawmaker and leader in Arafat's Fatah political organization. "It's an opportunity for President Clinton to see how Palestinians are living under the conditions of Israelis."

The Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada began on the streets of Gaza in 1987. Six years of confrontations between stone-throwing youths and Israeli soldiers ended with the 1993 peace accords signed in Oslo, Norway. Nearly three decades of Israeli occupation also ended. When Israeli troops pulled out, Gaza was much as they found it -- poor, densely populated and run down.

The peace process brought $250 million to $300 million in foreign aid to Gaza, and a changed landscape. Another $900 million is on the way from the United States alone. The main streets of Gaza City, previously rutted and muddy, are now paved boulevards. There are traffic lights and public telephone booths on street corners. Sewage treatment has improved, clearing some neighborhoods of the presence of raw effluent.

Elusive dream

But the dream of peace has yet to fully materialize.

Israeli border closures invoked after terrorist attacks prevent Palestinians from traveling to jobs in Israel. Personal income has declined precipitously -- the average daily wage for a Gazan is not much more than $10, compared with the $25 a Palestinian working in Israel earns.

Unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the Palestinian territories, about 20.8 percent, compared with 12.9 percent in the West Bank. Joblessness among Gaza's youth, ages 15 to 19, about 38 percent.

About 750,000 of the 1 million Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees or the families of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, who fled their homes out of fear or were forced to leave by the Israeli army. Many still live in camps operated by the United Nations.

"Clinton can see it all in the situation in Gaza, with the refugee camps, the destruction of the infrastructure, the results of the Palestinian tragedy of 1948," said Muhammed Shatiyyeh, a director of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction. "It is the real face of the economic strife of the Palestinians."

Jindia, the Gaza coffee shop owner, may hoist an American flag to welcome the president of the United States. But like other Palestinians, he knows well the price Palestinians have paid for peace.

"People have money only for food now," said the 45-year-old father of 12.

Jindia stood in Palestine Square last week, overseeing the renovations under way at his coffee shop. Beside him was Shaher I'ileawa, an unemployed painter. I'ileawa, a 30-year-old father of five, hopes Clinton's visit "will open the road to work."

"Work is everything," added Jindia. "With work, you can calm everything. Without this you will become a criminal, a terrorist."

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