Clinton's trip raises hopes for a 'Palestine'

Palestinians already have many trappings of sovereignty. Will the visit by Clinton help Arafat declare a state?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The term "occupied territories" is fast becoming a bit pass.

Today, many of the nearly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza can send a letter with stamps issued by the Palestinian postal authority, buy shares on the Palestinian Securities Exchange, report a crime to the Palestinian police, educate their children in schools run by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, and even get whopped with a bill from the Palestinian tax authorities.

A Palestinian can also get a host of documents - from a driver's license, to a passport, to a birth certificate - without going to the Israelis or another foreign power, a first in the modern history of people who have also been ruled by the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the British, and the Turks - but never by themselves.

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All these tastes of independence would have seemed like the stuff of fiction just five years ago, when a Palestinian teenager could be thrown in an Israeli prison for so much as spray-painting the name "Palestine" on a wall or hoisting a flag in the national colors of red, black, white, and green.

But whether these different ingredients constitute a recipe that will soon yield an independent state of Palestine is the subject of much debate as President Clinton prepares to visit the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Bethlehem Dec. 14 and 15 - the first trip by an American president to Palestinian-ruled soil.

Symbolic implications

Palestinian leaders are gleefully highlighting the significance of Mr. Clinton's visit. They see his arrival in Gaza City - the headquarters of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) - as a prelude to US recognition of a Palestinian state.

"We consider this visit as very symbolic, especially from a national point of view for the Palestinian people," Ahmed Tibi, a senior adviser to Mr. Arafat, told reporters. "One of the most important things emerging from the Wye Memorandum is President Clinton visiting Gaza."

When he arrives in Gaza Dec. 14, Clinton will see many trappings of independence. First he will be greeted by honor guards and military troops playing the American and Palestinian national anthems, and be whisked past hordes of onlookers waving plastic American and Palestinian flag combos now being churned out in knickknack factories.

Then Clinton will address an assembly of Palestinian officials in a hall that already serves as a legislative council building in Gaza City.

Avoiding emblematic moves

But the president will not fly into Gaza's just-opened airport, because of requests from Israeli officials that he avoid making such emblematic moves that could be seen as de facto recognition of Palestinian sovereignty. Nor will Clinton spend the night in Gaza, owing to a combination of high security risks and scant hotel space - no place is big enough to house the expected entourage of 1,000 for the night.

Moreover, Clinton will avoid addressing Israel's parliament, the Knesset, during the same trip. Though there are reports that Clinton chose to make that omission to avoid Israeli objections that such a visit implies parity between the two legislative bodies, the rankled Knesset speaker says he will boycott all events linked to Clinton's trip.

Clinton will instead address Knesset members and other Israelis at a Jerusalem convention center. But that has not stopped the snowballing of negative comments from right-wing politicians, unhappy about a visit they fear will swing open the door to Palestinian statehood.

Observers see very different pictures when they step back from the messy and often tragic road toward Israeli-Palestinian peace - its difficulties highlighted by a recent backslide toward violence and mutual recriminations. Israel is warning that it won't proceed with the next land pullback unless the PA does more to control violence.

Some say that not only is a Palestinian state inevitable, but the basic infrastructure for the would-be state of Palestine is already settling firmly into place.

Others argue that Palestinian statehood is still an eon away - and that to suggest otherwise is nearly a hoax.

Stacked up to existing states

Israeli political scientist Hillel Frisch, author of the recently released book "Countdown to Statehood: Palestinian State-Building in the West Bank and Gaza," contends there are more tangible facets of statehood in the Palestinian Authority than there are in many other struggling nations.

"I think it's a state, but states are all relative. It's more of a state today than at least 20 states out there in the world which are recognized by international organizations," says Dr. Frisch, a research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

While critics who had hoped for a more democratic Palestinian regime may be disappointed by its shortcomings, Frisch says, the world does not deny a nation independence simply because it lacks a rule of law, violates human rights, or operates on a system of patronage and nepotism.

"So much of this exists in other third-world countries that Arafat can't really be singled out for being unique in this respect," he says.

Frisch cites the formation of Palestinian military forces among the hallmarks of statehood. Though the Oslo peace accords allowed for 30,000 police officers, the reality has become a force of 45,000 troops, many of them trained as soldiers.

"It's an army. In manpower and training, it compares to at least 10 [other] states. And it's worrisome to Israelis who discuss May 4 [the date on which Arafat has said he will declare a Palestinian state next year], through the lens of possible confrontation."

Still more facets of statehood loom. The International Olympic Committee has given the Palestinians permission to compete in the next summer Games, and they have a national soccer team recognized by the Federation Internationale de Football Association. The Palestinians have also been assigned a country code for international telephone dialing - and phone service from the Palestine Telecommunications Company is up and running.

Israeli controls

The flip side is how Palestinian society still operates in many ways at the mercy of the Israeli government. Those shiny green passports the PA issues? They have the same identification numbers the Israelis used for keeping track of Palestinians during the occupation. Want to use the new Gaza airport? The Israelis will make a security check first and veto those they don't want to let travel. Trying to move yourself or your goods between the West Bank and Gaza? The Israelis still hold the hard-to-get permits for such trips. Promises to open two "safe passage" routes have yet to be realized.

For all the ways in which Palestinians may be running their own lives more than ever before, they still lack two key things most countries take for granted: territorial continuity and economic sovereignty.

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completes implementation of the Wye accord, Arafat will be in control of about 40 percent of the West Bank and most of the Gaza Strip. But with the two areas disjointed - and the probability that the West Bank land he will control will not constitute one contiguous piece - it would be hard to call Palestine a state per se. And without direct control of any of its borders, its access to outside markets will always be severely curtailed.

"The viability of a Palestinian state, economically, would be tied to control over its national resources, and dependent on control over its borders so it can export and import freely," says Salem Ajluni, the chief economic analyst at the Gaza-based Office of United Nations Special Coordinator in the Occupied Territories.

Mr. Ajluni cites a number of factors that add up to a shaky economic climate: Israeli limits on imports and exports, internal Palestinian problems of government monopolies, and lack of legal recourse for investors who lose money in sour deals.

The situation is not ready to support the introduction of a Palestinian currency, he says. The Palestinian economy operates on Israeli shekels, Jordanian dinars, and American dollars and still lacks a functioning central bank or monetary policy.

The Palestinian economy will remain dependent on providing Israel cheap labor for years to come, Ajluni says, but that does not really present any barriers to Palestinian statehood.

"The link [with Israel] itself is not necessarily a bad thing," he says. "No one I know argues that it should be an autarchy and totally cut off from Israel."

Statehood skeptics

The flag of statehood may wave brightly on Dec. 14, but many others will quietly wag their fingers.

Ghassan Khatib, a leading Palestinian analyst who runs the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, suggests that some officials are trying to hoodwink Palestinians into believing they have achieved independence.

To say statehood is around the corner is utterly dishonest, Mr. Khatib says. "I look at the visit of Clinton as a bribe to the Palestinian leadership," he says. Arafat, in return for softening some of his positions, won a symbolic gesture from the United States that would in turn help bolster his domestic and international image.

Khatib, though a proponent of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, offers a critique reminiscent of Arafat's harshest opponents: Some Palestinians feel the Oslo accords aren't a way to reach Palestinian independence, but rather a way to get Arafat to control Palestinians in order to provide Israelis with more security and alleviate the burden of military occupation.

"The Palestinian Authority is only playing an administrative role, not a decisionmaking role. I can get a Palestinian passport, but I can only use it if my trip is approved by Israel," Khatib says.

"This is exemplary of everything," he continues. "It's an administrative authority that cannot be tantamount to a state by any means. Let's call things by their name. Autonomy is better than an occupation, but it's not independence."

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