Clinton nods to a Palestinian 'land'

His 'historic' visit to Gaza yesterday may tilt Mideast balance. But more talks needed.

Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister in the 1970s, once said that there was "no such thing as a Palestinian people." But as pageantry greeted the first visit of an American president to autonomous Palestinian territory, the notion of Palestinians as a nonentity unraveled as never before.

"For the first time in the history of the Palestinian movement, the Palestinian people and their elected representatives now have a chance to determine their own destiny on their own land," President Clinton said at a luncheon yesterday in Gaza City. "America wants you to succeed, and we will help you create the society you deserve."

Mr. Clinton's visit is just one signal in a long trend toward recognition of Palestinian aspirations for statehood. And in many ways, this is the Palestinians' moment of truth. They are desperate to show they can take on the responsibility of governing civilians and managing an economy.

Palestinians generally still perceive the American government as being pro-Israeli. But Palestinians say they have begun to see a more equitable approach, culminating in Clinton's speech at yesterday's meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC).

The meeting reaffirmed changes to the PNC charter with a show of hands, which an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said was acceptable. "You did a good thing today raising your hands," Clinton said. "It has nothing to do with the government in Israel. You will touch the people."

"Historically, we felt that [Americans] were biased, but there has been a change, and they are starting to understand our cause and our problems," says Atalla Qubia, who came in from his diplomatic posting in Sri Lanka to attend the Palestinian National Council vote. "A lot of Americans understood us earlier on, but who could say it? Clinton can speak it loudly, and tell the world that it is OK to visit the land of Palestine."

Past identities

During most of the past half century, Palestinians have been in the doghouse of America's worldview of the Middle East.

At first they were simply the local pawns of a larger Arab world. Later, they were known only as terrorists who used radical measures in their quest to promote their name at any cost - resorting to plane- and ship-hijacking, hostage-taking, and the murder of random Israeli civilians in raids that sometimes included Americans and other foreign nationals.

They were also the Palestinians who paired up with anyone who might help the cause - from the Soviets to the Iraqis and Libyans - thus linking themselves with regimes on Washington's list of most threatening foes.

Not until the outbreak of the 1987 intifadah, or uprising, did Americans begin to see the Palestinians not so much as terrorists, but as teenage stone throwers - a David fighting a Goliath of an Israeli army.

America has had a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization for most of the past 10 years, barring the severing of ties in 1990 when the PLO took responsibility for a failed raid on a Tel Aviv beach. But throughout most of the decade, the US view of Palestinians remained tentative.

Today, congressional willingness to give aid to Israel still far surpasses that for the Palestinians. America has so far promised $900 million to the Palestinians over five years, in comparison with the $3 billion in military and civilian aid Israel receives each year.

Clinton says he is asking for $1.2 billion more to help Israel decrease its security risks in the wake of the Wye accords.

But Clinton's visit speaks volumes to many Palestinians. "This trip is a de facto recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to have their own state," says Ziad Abu Ziad, Palestinian Cabinet minister without portfolio. "We want to show the Israelis that we are serious, we are implementing our part of the agreement, and we want them to do the same."

"We think that there has been enough of fighting, enough killing," says Mr. Qubia, who joined the Palestine Liberation Army in Lebanon when he was 17 and later worked for the PLO in terrorist training camps. "We think the time for the peace has come. I hope the Israelis understand that and take it very seriously."

Other Palestinian viewpoints

But Azmi Shuabi, a PNC member who voted in favor of amending the charter in 1996, says he was voting against the charter changes this time out of protest for the way the issue of the charter has been politicized by Israeli Mr. Netanyahu.

"I'm voting against the way Netanyahu wants us to do his bidding through pressure and orders," says Mr. Shuabi, a PNC member from the Palestinian Democratic Union, or FIDA, a political faction that split off from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which rejects the Oslo Accords. "This vote is an artificial procedure."

Mr. Abu Ziad says one of the Palestinians' main regrets about the visit is that President Clinton will not see Gaza's crushing poverty and squalid refugee camps, where shoeless children play in unpaved alleyways.

"We wanted him to see the people, not to fly from one place to another. We wanted very much for him to use his car to go through populated areas to see the crowds of Palestinians coming out to salute him and to express our willingness to develop good relations with the American people," he says.

Instead, Clinton saw the newly refurbished and neatly tended Palestine Square, a stark contrast to the rest of Gaza. Here stores were ordered shut, cars were kept off the street, and donkey-led carts were ordered tucked away from sight because of Palestinian concerns about being viewed as "backward."

Sidewalks were scrubbed clean, Palestinian and American flags festooned buildings and road medians, and the walls were decked with banners of welcome: "We have a dream. Free Palestine," read one.

Would-be protesters were kept off the streets, deterred by a massive presence of Palestinian police and soldiers blocking roads with access to the area where Clinton would visit.

For many Palestinians, the greatest hope of today's visit is not just what it means for relations with the United States, but the road that it could pave for other leading heads of state to visit the West Bank and Gaza without facing significant opposition from Israel's right-wing government.

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