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More Than a Summit Handshake, Palestinians Want Israeli Action

Mistrust and pessimism are high after last week's gun battles

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 1996



GAZA CITY, GAZA

Peace between Arab and Jew may be symbolized in Washington with a photo-opportunity handshake, but cementing that renewed trust has yet to begin on the ground.

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For Palestinian police forces loyal to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - who say that Israeli troops opened fire on them first when unprecedented battles erupted last week - there is little trust left to build upon.

Their pessimism is echoed across the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where Palestinians say their expectations from the US summit were low.

Partly they blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-line policies for pushing them to violence; and they blame Mr. Arafat for agreeing to unrealistic peace terms in the past.

"Here is where we had tea and coffee [with Israelis] during joint patrols, and look what they've done to it," says Palestinian Capt. Imad Sayed, pointing to a makeshift bench along a wall of graffiti at the Netzarim checkpoint.

Bullet holes from a 30-mm heavy machine gun - fired from the Israeli watchtower across the street that stands inside a Jewish settler compound - have just been filled in with dollops of concrete and are still moist.

"The situation now looks OK, but the anger will never end until we achieve something in Washington," says Captain Sayed. "It will not clear until we get our legitimate rights and our own state."

When three Israeli soldiers cross the road, they reach out tentatively to shake the hands of their Palestinian counterparts. A few days earlier both sides were locked in gun battles, with casualties on both sides. The weather today, a Palestinian officer says, speaking figuratively under bright blue skies, is still "partly cloudy."

Now they wait.

Already Mr. Netanyahu has ruled out resealing the tourist tunnel near the gold-topped Dome of the Rock, which sparked the wave of lethal protest last week. And a Palestinian state - once implied as the end game by the previous Israeli government - has been declared impossible by Netanyahu.

On the ground, the signs are not encouraging. Despite the handshakes between rival officers here - which mirror the official ones between their leaders in Washington - Israeli troops have been reinforcing their positions with sandbags. At the Erez checkpoint from Israel into Gaza, security officers are working overtime to build even more rows of concrete barriers.

Joint military patrols - once seen to be the glue that held the spirit of peace and cooperation together - have been largely abandoned.

As disappointment Gaza grows, hope for a lasting peace settlement fades. For many Palestinians, the key to peace now will be whether Arafat can turn his most recent boost in popularity into Israeli concessions.

Few expect that he can.

"Arafat was the winner, but now he must know how to use it," says one Gazan man who asked not to be identified. "People don't care about the summit and are tired of shaking hands. Instead they talk about the injured and the dead, the Israelis firing on us from helicopters, and the siege of Palestinian cities," he says.

The peace process was entering an "era of uncertainty," he says, and the failure of Arafat to secure progress will result in a "catastrophe" far worse than last week's violence, which left more than 70 people dead.

A UN official in Gaza detects similar disillusion, but says violence may not erupt again for a time after the Washington talks. "This whole process is not based on improving the lot of the Palestinian people, but on improving the security for Israel," he says. "People's expectations [about the summit] are so low that almost anything would keep them in check for awhile," he says.

The view among Palestinian intellectuals, however, is that the collapse of the peace process has been a long, steady decline leaving Palestinians with little to lose, making violence a tenable option.

In fact, as long as Israel's right-wing Likud government continues policies that are seen to be directly provocative - such as permitting the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land and keeping open the controversial tunnel in Jerusalem - Palestinians may see continued violence as their only option.

"The potential exists for bigger and bigger explosions," says Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "It depends on how Israel governs, but they are pushing people in that direction."

The problem with Netanyahu is he "does not speak politics, he is an ideologue," says Mr. Sourani, making a point also emphasized by left-wing Israeli peace activists. "This makes the soil ready for more violence."

At the Netzarim checkpoint in the late afternoon sunlight, the sense of expectant waiting is just the same, as old patrolling partners reluctantly square off on opposite sides of the road. "No coffee, no tea," breathes Sayed with a sigh. "Just work."