As Clinton visits, Palestinians forgive U.S. for a day With banners, comments, Arabs speak their minds

December 15, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- From the flatlands of Rafah to the refugee camps of Gaza City, Palestinians let America's president know what was on their minds.

"Settlements Kill Peace."

"East Jerusalem is the Capital of Palestine."

"Releasing the Prisoners and the Detainees is an Act of Peace."

So said the banners as President Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Gaza.

In Gaza City, where American flags have been burned to protest the United States' unwavering support for Israel, the same flag flew from rooftops. Children on their way home from school clasped small plastic replicas of the Stars and Stripes distributed by the Palestinian Authority. American flags fluttered from wires strung across the streets.

A mural-sized painting of Clinton giving the "thumbs up" and Arafat raising the victory sign covered the facade of a building within view of the Shawwa Cultural Center, the site of the Palestine National Council meeting and Clinton's address.

The caption read: "We Have A Dream -- Free Palestine."

Palestinians understood that the international community was watching. And despite America's support for the Israelis who occupied this land for nearly 30 years, there seemed to be a collective decision to forgo the hard feelings of the past -- for the day.

"We are Arabs. We are known for our hospitality," said Shehada Amoudi, 45, a kitchenware salesman. "We always close our eyes to many mistakes when it comes [to our guests]. We will close our eyes to Clinton's mistakes and receive him as well."

Shops near the Shawwa Center were closed and most Gazans had the day off.

'It's like a holiday. We are profiting from him coming here," said Khalil al Biram, who sat behind the closed shutters of his shop reviewing accounts. "America is the superpower. In the past, the United States helped Israel in everything. Now we hope [Clinton] will help us like he helps the Israelis."

Thousands of Palestinian police and security men lined the president's route and patrolled the streets of Gaza. Marine police, the general security troops, preventive security forces, civilian police and members of Arafat's personal guard -- the so-called Force 417 -- in various uniforms, were called to duty. While many carried guns, at least one group -- the civilian police -- were unarmed.

Staff Cmdr. Sayad Shaban of the marine police said the president was in good hands. "Today, Arafat is Clinton and Clinton is Arafat," he said.

He said Palestinian forces cooperated fully with American security officials. And a plan to evacuate the president was prepared in case of an emergency.

At the Jabaliya refugee camp, one of the largest in the Palestinian territories, a group of Palestinian men sat in the midday sun and discussed Clinton's visit.

"We feel like Clinton and the United States administration has double standards in this region," said Atif Ahmed, 36. "It will be important if he can implement what he says."

"First thing, help release the prisoners and then negotiate the peace," added Samir Oweis, 35, a veteran of the Palestinian street uprising of 1987 to 1993 who now works with disabled victims of the intifada.

But Abdul Fattah Sharafi, 20, was not as forgiving as the others.

"I cannot even carry an American flag," said Sharafi, who said he burned them in the days of the intifada. "My conscience will not let me. I cannot forgive what the Americans have done to the Arab people -- like the siege of Sudan and Iraq."

Sharafi, who was injured several times as a stone-throwing street fighter, has no interest in knowing Jews. The only Jews he has met were the soldiers of Israel's occupying forces.

He does not want to make peace with the Israelis. Sharafi wants only to evict the Jews from "all our Palestinian lands, from the river to the sea."

Amoudi, the household goods salesman, was less harsh in his assessment of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

"We do not like killing or death," he said. "But it is our right to live in our land. I was a 16-year-old when I worked as a janitor in Israel, and I cried because the room the garbage was in was better than the rooms we lived in.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "says no to peace and the United States supports him. We know the solution is in the hands of the United States," Amoudi said. "If the United States wants, it can force a solution."

Pub Date: 12/15/98

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