Mr. Arafat, Meet Gaza

HEADLINES for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process emerge from Paris, Oslo, and Cairo. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat are trying to come to terms with what they signed on the White House lawn last September. The two leaders met in Cairo yesterday to hash out the size of a Palestinian Jericho.

Israelis may give the PLO a 20-square-mile area around Jericho, a small victory for Mr. Arafat. Yet whether a PLO Jericho is 14 or 22 square miles is a side issue compared with the crisis of governance developing in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza, not Jericho, ought to be the focus of scrutiny. Gaza is where fundamental issues will or won't be addressed; it is the major territory Israel has conceded and the test of whether Arafat can keep his cause together.

Hence, the resignations on Sunday of four key PLO officials in the occupied territories - members of Arafat's Fatah movement - have much significance. The departures follow Arafat's appointment of a 13-member council to govern Gaza that is made up, truth be told, of cronies - generally older men, some from Tunis, who did not participate in the intifadah and who have little respect among the PLO constiuency in Gaza. Particularly galling to some is the choice of Zakaria al-Agha to head the council, a man who is likely to rubber-stamp Arafat's decisions.

This is the widest rift over Arafat's leadership so far. It comes after the resignation of negotiator Hanan Ashrawi, a respected figure in the West. The most important departure is of Sami Abu Samhadana, head of Fatah central bureau in Gaza City. He spent time in prison and is highly regarded among the generation actively opposing occupation.

Early this fall, after the White House handshake, we said that for the accord to succeed, Arafat would have to change his style from the autocratic high-handedness he had grown accustomed to as an exiled leader handing out patronage in lovely Tunis. He has not shown such change.

To Palestinians, it seems that Arafat gave away the dream of a return to a real Palestine. Hence, Gaza is all the more important; the locals want a stake in their future, not just a friendlier form of occupation.

Israel is giving Arafat enough to keep the peace process barely alive. Meanwhile, Gaza is coming apart.

Arafat must refocus his priorities. Talks in Oslo, Paris or Cairo must be backed by PLO support gained by local participation in Gaza and Jericho.

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