Locked out of Gaza - but not lunch with Arafat

One day in mid-February, a Palestinian friend got me invited to a lunch party here - hosted by Yasser Arafat. It was a genial gathering. Some of the guests were longtime African National Congress activists from South Africa who'd known Mr. Arafat from the days when they, too, were still struggling for justice in their country.

The South Africans, who included Forestries Minister Ronnie Kasrils, were brainstorming with Arafat on the Palestinian's request that the International Court of Justice declare the separation wall Israel is building deep inside the occupied West Bank to be illegal.

Arafat hosted the lunch in one of the few rooms left of the former Palestinian Authority headquarters here in this West Bank city.Israeli troops destroyed the rest of the complex two years ago. Since then, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has besieged Arafat in the remaining rooms, and has periodically threatened to "remove" him even from there.

To get to lunch, we walked through the wreckage of the compound and up a heavily sandbagged staircase. Tired-looking Palestinian guards with guns spoke on walkie-talkies and glanced nervously all around.

Completing the separation wall in the West Bank is half of Mr. Sharon's "Disengagement Plan," which he announced in December. The other half of it aims to pull all of Israel's settlers and most of its soldiers out of the Gaza Strip.

I asked Arafat what he thought of Sharon's announcement about the withdrawal from Gaza.

"I don't believe he's serious," was his reply. He also told me he still far prefers the "road map" approach to Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking that President Bush has been pursuing since late 2000. He said he would like to urge Bush to "use [his] influence with Sharon to implement the road map." There are some evident differences between the road map and Sharon's plan:

• Sharon says he is ready to implement the Disengagement Plan unilaterally. By contrast, the road map would involve Israel negotiating the future of the occupied areas with the Palestinians (though not with Arafat personally).

• The road map has involved the sponsorship of the UN, the Europeans, Russia, and the US. Sharon's plan, however, involves a small role for Washington and leaves the others on the sidelines.

I wanted to find out, however, what Palestinians thought about Sharon's plan to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza. Most of those in the West Bank with whom I talked said much the same as Arafat: They didn't believe Sharon was serious on this score.

Gaza is a strip 25 miles long by 5 miles wide on Israel's Mediterranean coast near Egypt. It is home to 1.3 million Palestinians and 7,500 Israeli settlers. To protect the settlers, Israel keeps several thousand troops in Gaza; it has also declared 30 percent of the Strip off-limits to Palestinians, and has divided the rest into four separate zones.

In 2001, in the name of fighting "terrorism," Israeli troops wrecked Gaza's airport and seaport. Since then, they've wrecked other public facilities, including a food warehouse. Since 2000, they've demolished more than 1,000 Palestinian homes in Gaza, leaving 15,000 homeless. The economic crisis in Gaza is so deep-seated that last November a UN nutritional report said that 9 percent of Palestinian children under 5 have brain damage because of malnutrition. To make matters worse, in January, Israel tightened the restrictions on foreigners entering Gaza. With Gaza's people increasingly isolated, the Israeli military has stepped up its provocative military patrols into even thickly populated residential areas. While I was here in February, troops killed 15 Palestinians in one day in Gaza.

In these circumstances, Palestinian militancy has been on the rise. If Israel does withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, there is a good chance that Hamas and the other militant groups would seize control there. It's hard to see that as increasing the momentum toward peace.

I'd wanted to visit Gaza during my latest visit to Israel and the occupied territories, but the Israeli military wouldn't let me. So I was left with many burning questions about the proposed withdrawal, about Sharon's policies in general, and about the Bush administration's passivity in the face of Sharon's aggressive tactics.

Should the US continue to provide extremely generous aid to Israel while Sharon acts so destructively in the occupied territories? And is it in the best interests of the Israelis themselves for their government to treat in this way the people who will, at the end of the day, still be their neighbors?

Helena Cobban, the author of five books on international issues, spent two weeks last month in the Middle East. A second column from Ramallah will appear next Thursday.

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