Gaza awaits visit by Yasser Arafat Historic return, harsh reality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- At first, it seems a recipe for disaster:

Take a poor, dirty sprawl of 800,000 people, with overcrowded schools, underequipped hospitals and high unemployment. Remove the government that has held the place together for 27 years and replace it with novices. Add a police force with little experience but lots of guns. Fold in a simmering political feud. Stir at your own risk.

Such is the formula for Palestinian self-rule awaiting a landmark visit by PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat today on the 9-by-24-mile Gaza Strip. Little wonder that Mr. Arafat has decided to make his home in the West Bank town of Jericho, where Palestinians have also ruled sincetheir May agreement with Israel.

But the fortunes of Gaza, not Jericho, will determine whether Israel will be willing to turn over more occupied land for self-rule and, perhaps someday, a Palestinian state. That is one reason Mr. Arafat chose Gaza for his historic first visit to the self-rule area, according to adviser Nabil Shaath.

Mr. Arafat is to make his triumphant return to the Gaza Strip from Egypt about 2:30 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EDT), ending decades of exile, mostly in Lebanon and Tunisia, where he waged the Palestinians' campaign for their own homeland.

L "Jericho is a symbol," Mr. Shaath said, "Gaza is a reality."

It is a daunting reality.

Tax collectors desperate for revenue have no records. More than half the water and one-third of the electricity disappear into illegal hookups. Some 30,000 cars and hundreds of donkey carts navigate broken streets without a single traffic light. Uncollected garbage and open sewers threaten the water supply.

Yet, strange things happen in the euphoria of new freedom. Six weeks after the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers, optimism has taken root in the squalor. Instead of dissolving into warring factions with the departure of a common enemy, as many predicted, rival Palestinians have remained tenuously united against the possibility of failure.

Israeli leaders, watching from a safe distance, have been impressed.

"The situation is far better than had been expected," said Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. "The atmosphere is one of joy and celebration."

Some of that joy can be found in the words and actions of DawoudAhil, who on a recent afternoon stood on Gaza City's main street. Behind him, workers poured concrete into the foundation for a 15-story office building.

"Now we are living on hope," said Mr. Ahil, owner of the property. "We expect that peace will make good business, a good future. I tell you, we have no other choice."

Mr. Ahil bought the tract two years ago, and it wasn't cheap. Since peace came, the value has doubled. It is one of perhaps 30 properties he's bought in Gaza in the past 20 years.

"I knew there would be some good here someday," he said, "because war never continues forever."

'This is my land'

Indeed, if the Palestinians have learned anything from 27 years of occupation, it's patience. They may need similar forbearance in waiting for their new government to make progress against Gaza's problems. Mr. Ahil said he believes that Palestinians will be willing to wait now that their own people are governing.

"This is your government, so you have to respect it, even if you are not in line with it," he says. Mr. Ahil was born in Gaza, but through the occupation he has lived in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"In a few years I would like to move my family here," he says. In Saudi Arabia we are foreigners. We cannot buy land. We cannot open a business. But here, this is my land."

If Mr. Ahil represents Gaza's hopes, some of its fears are evident at the office of Dr. Mohammed Jeddy, director of a school system for 105,000 students.

For now, students attend school in two shifts because there aren't enough classrooms. The birth rate has outstripped the capacity of virtually every government service during the years of occupation. Hospitals that served a population of 350,000 with 800 beds in 1967, for example, now serve 450,000 additional people with only 60 additional beds.

Mr. Jeddy, who has overseen the schools through the past 16 years, figures he will need an additional $10 million per year -- a 50 percent increase -- to build enough schools, buy enough books and pay enough teachers to improve standards.

But the financial battles are likely to be tame compared with the ideological fight. There is pressure for rapid change, particularly from fundamentalist Muslims, and Mr. Jeddy is against it.

"It is not wise to make a revolution in the curriculum," he said. "Some will say that because the Israelis have withdrawn, what is the need of Hebrew? But old men such as me will say it is wrong to stop, because there will still be coordination between us and them. Economic coordination. Health coordination.

Signs of accommodation

If poorly handled, it could tear Gaza apart. But signs of accommodation are appearing in important places.

Health officials have decided to cooperate rather than compete with the 80 private clinics run by groups such as Hamas, the extremist Islamic organization.

"More than half of these clinics were illegal during the occupation," said Dr. Ahmad Yaziji, head of the Palestinian Health Council. "But we are not looking at the mentality or the political thinking of the people who are running them. In the case of one Hamas clinic that is far from the city, if we wanted to start a clinic of our own in this area it would cost a lot of money. If we support this clinic instead, it will cost us only a little."

Some trouble spots have faded almost as quickly as they've flared. Police warned mosques to stop making political announcements, then withdrew the order. Police threatened a JTC local Hamas-affiliated newspaper that had been critical, saying that such behavior would not be tolerated. The police again backed down, and called instead for "brotherly relations and respect."

The most serious confrontation so far seems to be between Hamas and families of those who collaborated with the Israelis during the occupation, a group that practically no Palestinian sides with. Even the arrests of some fundamentalist Islamic activists, who were immediately labeled political prisoners, has only caused a minor stir.

"There have been three or four cases like that," said Jamal Kuddavy, a Hamas activist. Politics has nothing to do with it. It is personal. It is not a war against factions, it is only a war against one person from that group."

But goodwill won't help if the economy doesn't improve. Israel will have much to say about this, depending on how many Gazans are allowed passage to jobs in Israel.

Creating more jobs in Gaza will require more investors like Mr. Ahil.

Hazim Tarezi, Gaza City's chief engineer, said that he knows the money is out there. He has met with wealthy Palestinians who've been scattered across the world.

It hasn't helped matters that Mr. Arafat hasn't finished naming all the chief administrators of the Gaza Strip's governing authority. The Israelis have been reluctant to turn over files and information until Mr. Arafat's new team is in place.

"At the end of the day when you're making business, you want to be sure you're making business with authoritative people," said Israeli Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild, liaison to the Palestinian authority.

The leadership vacuum has been troublesome for the new Palestinian tax collection authority. Palestinian accountants and supervisors who once worked under the Israelis, then quit 6 1/2 years ago at the start of the Palestinian uprising, have come back to their jobs, only to find that there are no taxpayer records.

General Rothschild said that Israel would return them "at the moment there is a tax authority established with competent professionals."

But none of these problems seems to have dampened investor enthusiasm. New buildings are rising all along Gaza's Mediterranean waterfront, and it doesn't take much imagination to foresee a future of clean beaches and high-rise tourist hotels.

Even some Israeli entrepreneurs are waiting to cash in if Gaza makes a go of it, Mr. Tarezi said.

Give Palestinians a chance

But he's not sure that he and Gaza are politically ready. "I tell them, I don't think so, not in the beginning," he said. "Maybe in three or five years. I want to give Palestinians a chance first."

Mr. Ahil had no such qualms when asked if he'll do business with the Israelis. "Yes," he said. "With Israelis and with Arabs. And why not, if there is peace."

But Gaza will not be any better off materially at the end of Mr. Arafat's first visit, no matter how much celebrating goes on.

That's why Mr. Peres hopes that Mr. Arafat will pause during the festivities to take a close, hard look at Gaza's gritty problems.

"Arafat will have to open his eyes," Mr. Peres said. "It's not enough just to drink champagne. You also have to go into the kitchen and do the washing up."

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