As soon as the Palestine National Council (PNC) declared an independent state this week, Israel showed Palestinians of the occupied West Bank how free they really are. A convoy of jeeps and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets of the West Bank's largest city, Nablus. Its 100,000 inhabitants were confined to their homes by a curfew to prevent any public celebrations of independence.
About 1 million Palestinians were put under curfew in the occupied territories for the first time since Israel captured the territories in 1967. Heavily reinforced troops patrolled deserted streets in towns and refugee camps, stifling any attempts to demonstrate.
[But the Army was less able to control the occupied Gaza Strip, despite a curfew that stretched into its sixth day yesterday, Reuters reports.
[Lighting bonfires in blacked-out streets, hurling firecrackers into Israeli Army jeeps and dancing to a frenzied drumbeat, thousands of Gazans celebrated the declaration of a Palestinian state Tuesday night.
[The power cut was apparently meant to prevent Palestinians from watching PLO leader Yasser Arafat on television reading the declaration of independence at the PNC meeting in Algiers. But some imaginative residents hooked up their television sets to car batteries and held ``independence parties'' with their neighbors.]
The unprecedented military crackdown was meant to show Palestinians that the declaration had changed nothing in the occupied territories, said Israel's top military commander in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Amram Mitzna.
``The declaration is meaningless - far from the territories and from reality,'' he said. ``Residents of the territories have been quick to realize that the state of Israel rules here, through its security forces, and no meaning can be given to this declaration. We are the ones who determine what happens.''
Both major political parties in Israel oppose the creation of a Palestinian state on the grounds that it would be governed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and thus, by Israeli definition, be hostile.
The morning after the declaration, West Bank Arabs said it had boosted their morale. But they admitted that it left conditions of daily life unchanged.
``Practically, the declaration is empty phrases,'' said a young man in Nablus. ``I don't feel that I'm in an independent state. The main effect is psychological. People are happy, but the unnatural conditions here compel them to keep their feelings to themselves.''
Other people said they saw the declaration as an important diplomatic tool which could pave the way for international recognition of Palestinian rights. ``We have said now that we want two states, living side by side, with neither controlling the other by force,'' said a man living in Ramallah. ``Now is the time for countries to show which of them support the Palestinians.''
[Reuters reports that 22 states have recognized the Palestinian homeland so far: Algeria, Iraq, Malaysia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, North Yemen, South Yemen, Madagascar, Turkey, Bahrain, Jordan, Zambia, Bangladesh, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, India, Mauritania, Yugoslavia, Morocco and Nicaragua. Countries which said they welcomed the Palestinian action but stopped short of formal recognition are Egypt, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Greece, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Malta.]
Hanna Siniora, editor of Al-Fajr newspaper, wrote that the declaration and resolutions of the PNC had created ``a moment of truth'' in Middle East diplomacy, forcing the United States and other nations to decide whether to respond to ``the Palestinian peace message.''
Seen from the West Bank, the declaration seemed to be directed more at the US than at the occupied territories. The style of the announcement and the response to it in the territories revealed the gap that still separates Palestinians in the occupied territories from their leaders abroad.
The PNC timed the declaration for 2:30 a.m. local time - just in time for evening broadcasts on major US networks. Most Palestinians in the territories were asleep when independence was declared, but Americans saw this story lead the news.
Palestinian leaders in Algiers sang and celebrated. But none used the occasion to appeal to residents of the occupied territories to take to the streets.
In the end, the response in the West Bank was weak. The mass demonstrations predicted by local activists failed to materialize. Palestinians were ultimately unwilling to defy the Israeli Army and challenge its massive show of strength.
There were some signs of joy, but they were quickly crushed. On the afternoon following the declaration, at a time called for by underground leaflets, employees at the Ittihad Nisai Hospital in Nablus blared the Palestinian anthem Biladi (My Country) over a tape recorder and sang nationalist songs. Masked youths flew balloons bearing the colors of the Palestinian flag from the roof of the building while a youth carried a Palestinian flag, to the applause of the crowd.
The impromptu ceremony brought cheers and whistles from adjacent homes, whose occupants stepped outside in violation of the curfew. Soldiers arrived at the hospital and broke up the celebration.
When the sun went down, teen-agers threw makeshift fireworks into the air and set barricades on fire before they were chased away by soldiers.