ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat held an 11th-hour meeting in Cairo last night to try to break the impasse over security in the occupied territories on the scheduled eve of Palestinian self-rule.
But in the squalid refugee camps of Gaza Strip, where Israeli soldiers were supposed to begin their redeployment and withdrawal today, apathy and resignation have replaced the euphoria that greeted the signing three months ago of the accord giving Palestinians early self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho.
Spiraling violence between Palestinians and Israeli troops and stalled progress on plans to implement the accord have fueled despair among residents here.
``I think the Israelis will pull out a few troops here, a few there,'' says one resident of Refah refugee camp, along Gaza's border with Egypt, ``but I don't think it will make a real difference in our lives.''
Prime Minister Rabin and Mr. Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), began their meeting at press time amid optimistic signals that they would at least agree on the framework of an agreement, if not sign all the details.
``The Cairo meeting would not have been held if success had not been guaranteed beforehand,'' Israeli Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said after the Israeli Cabinet meeting yesterday.
Rabin told the Cabinet that he would not cede control of border crossings to Jordan and Egypt from the autonomous Palestinian zones, as the Palestinians have demanded, but that he would be flexible on the size of the area around Jericho that would be brought under Palestinian authority, Cabinet sources said.
Israel is also expected to announce the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to mark the scheduled beginning of the autonomy deal. No immediate gains
Ever since the Sept. 13 signing in Washington, Gaza's Arab population has been anticipating major improvements in living conditions. But both supporters and opponents of the deal say that, although symbolic concessions have been made by the Israelis, the harsh conditions of military occupation have not eased.
``Since September, we've been able to raise our flag, we've had a few prisoners released, but nothing concrete has been changed,'' says Raji Sourani, a leading human rights activist in Gaza City.
``There are still shootings and arrests, and we still have to obey the nightly curfew. The progress has been very slight.''
At least 50 Palestinians and Israelis have died in violent clashes in Israel and the territories since the accord was signed, and hundreds have been injured. Violence between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers has become so routine that a burst of gunfire near Gaza City's main square recently went virtually unnoticed by hordes of pedestrians.
Israeli officials began last month to dampen expectations that the troop withdrawal would begin on time. Rabin argued that postponing the deadline might produce a better agreement with the Palestinians on troop withdrawal. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who toured the region last week, concurred.
In Gaza, Palestinian leaders who earlier insisted that postponing the pullout would send an ominous signal about the fate of the accord have lately begun preparing the population for a delay.
``Unless you have an agreement [on withdrawal], I don't see that the Dec. 13 date is all that important,'' said Haider Abdel-Shafi, a former member of the Palestinian negotiating team. Security for settlers
Palestinian and Israeli delegates have tried for weeks to conclude a deal on an Israeli withdrawal. The main stumbling blocks, the negotiators say, are the extent of the Israeli withdrawal, the fate of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, and control of border posts linking the autonomy zones with Egypt and Jordan.
Israel has insisted it will redeploy - rather than completely withdraw - most of its troops based in Gaza in order to protect the estimated 4,000 Israeli settlers living there. The Palestinians, who are training a police force to take over when the Israelis leave, insist that the Israelis submit a plan for total withdrawal and a transfer of power.
Palestinians in Gaza are also worried that they may never see much of the aid money pledged by foreign donors. International lenders and aid agencies promised more than $2 billion in assistance to Gaza and Jericho, to help build essential infrastructure and encourage private investment. But many Western donors and lenders are concerned that the Palestinians lack the institutions to absorb the aid. The need for banks
``You cannot build or run a state the way you ran the revolution,'' says a leading Palestinian economist, echoing concerns that Arafat's mainstream Fatah organization will seek to control the funds. ``We need a better institutional infrastructure to make the best use of this money.''
Palestinians also worry that once international attention has shifted away from Gaza, capital infusions will stop.
``The money will come, but for how long?'' asks Ibrahim al-Ghazouri, a founder of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which opposes the peace accord. ``There will not be enough for us to build our society. The people expect that they will be able to go out and buy a car, that they will get a raise at work. But I know this will not happen. This creates a very dangerous situation.''
Simmering tension between Hamas and Fatah also threatens to upset the delicate process of implementing the accord. The two sides have declared a truce for the time being, but tensions could flare at any time, analysts say. Palestinians repeatedly say that free and fair elections are the only way to settle political conflict among the factions.
``Everybody here wants elections,'' says one United Nations official in Gaza, ``because they know that violence is not a vote-getter, it's a vote-loser.''