Palestinians split on question of when to declare statehood

April 28, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- While Palestinian leaders debated postponing a decision to declare statehood yesterday, Mohammed Abu Barri picked up his children's new green passports issued in the name of a country that doesn't exist.

The passport was stamped with "The Palestinian Authority." Abu Barri, 40, doesn't mind that it is not accepted around the world yet. He wants an independent Palestine declared when his leaders -- and the world -- are ready for it.

"The establishment of a Palestinian state is inevitable," he said. "If it's today or later in the future, it will be established even if it is in 1 square foot. But we have to be prepared."

Palestinians have their own flag, a president, an airport, a police force and an elected legislative council. But Israel controls its borders, its economy and much of the land Palestinians claim as their own. These issues will be settled only in a final round of peace talks that have long been delayed.

But with the interim, Israeli-Palestinian peace accords set to expire Tuesday, the Palestinians have been pressed to make a decision about their future.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat convened the 124-member Palestinian Central Council, a miniparliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in a closed-door meeting that is expected to decide to delay declaring an independent Palestine. A final decision may not be made until Tuesday.

"We are going through a very delicate period in the history of our people, a period during which we cannot afford making any mistakes," the official Palestinian news agency WAFA quoted Arafat as saying. "We don't need to ascertain our state because we are actually exercising statehood."

The United States, the European community and Arab states have pressed the Palestinians to delay making a unilateral declaration because of the fragility of the Middle East peace process.

In the past year, Arafat repeatedly said he would declare a state by May 4, the end of the Oslo peace accords. But the mercurial -- and often volatile -- politics of the Middle East forced him to change course.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year halted Israel's implementation of the latest land-for-security peace agreement. Discontent within Netanyahu's government led to a call for new elections May 17.

Supporters of a Palestinian state fear a unilateral declaration would increase the chances of hard-liner Netanyahu being re-elected. Nonetheless, Arafat spent the past two months crisscrossing the globe -- visiting 56 countries -- to win support for a Palestinian state.

In the end, Arafat's globe-trotting seems to have paid off. The overriding stance of the international community today is not if a Palestinian state will be declared, but when.

To bolster Arafat's efforts and his standing among nearly 3 million Palestinians, President Clinton this week proposed holding a new peace summit within six months of the Israeli elections to negotiate the crucial remaining issues and an end to the peace process.

But yesterday, street demonstrators in the West Bank towns of Nablus and Gaza called on Palestinian leaders to act now.

A majority of the council members are Arafat loyalists, but there also was dissent among them yesterday.

"I think we have to declare a state on the 4th of May," said Marwan Barghouti, a West Bank leader of Arafat's political group, known as Fatah.

But Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, said the council should take its time.

The meeting also included participation by Hamas, the militant Islamic group that is opposed to the Oslo accords and that has perpetrated terrorist attacks in Israel. The presence of a Hamas delegation led by spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin marked the first time Hamas leaders have joined a PLO gathering.

A Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, said the group observed the meeting to show its "solidarity with the whole of the Palestinian nation toward the establishment of the state."

As the council debated the issue, Netanyahu took credit for the Palestinians' delay.

"For a year Arafat has been threatening to establish a Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem," Netanyahu said in an interview with Israeli television.

"Today it's already clear he is not going to do so. It's also clear why. Today we hear in their debates they will postpone it until after the elections because they know that as long as I'm prime minister in Israel there will be no Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem."

The future of Jerusalem is a contentious issue to be decided in the final-status negotiations. Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their own. For many Palestinians, a future Palestinian state is tied to the fate of Jerusalem.

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