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PERSPECTIVE ON THE PALESTINIANS : The Fruits of Peace Come Into View

July 03, 1994|NABIL SHAATH has been the PLO's chief negotiator with the Israelis. He was interviewed Thursday in Cairo by Stanley Sheinbaum, publisher of New Perspectives Quarterly

Question: How does it feel to have Yasser Arafat returning to Palestine in this very dramatic way?

Answer: Arafat always operates with this sense of drama and surprise. Now the moment we have been waiting for so long has arrived. His visit has stirred on the ground, in Gaza, a great sense of hope, the sense of a new beginning. After such a long struggle, there is finally some happiness, some satisfaction and a sense of achievement.

Q: While the militant Muslim Hamas organization, which rejects the Gaza-Jericho accord, has been making threatening noises in Gaza about Arafat's leadership, they have also now said they will avoid violence. Is this a sign that they are coming around?

A: Yes. Having just been in Gaza, my sense is that Hamas and all the rest of the opposition has decided that the people are so happy about this agreement and its potential. Hamas and the other organizations had to acquiesce because they themselves enjoy the fruits of the agreement, in particular the freedom that was brought on by the entry of the Palestinian police. They are free from fear and have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Gaza is now an open society, almost totally free from any oppressive measures by the authorities. Their acquiescence has made it easier for Arafat to enter Gaza and start exercising his authority and fulfilling his dream. The price they have exacted in the bargain is a guarantee of their freedom of expression.

Q: Why did Arafat decide to return at this moment?

A: There were several factors. The meeting I had several days ago with (Israeli officials) resulted in the declaration that the Israelis have decided to spread the Palestinian role all along the West Bank. That means we will not end up with Gaza, but start up with Gaza. That was the first factor.

Another factor was the declaration by (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin that Arafat was welcome in Jerusalem. The third factor was the speedup in the process of releasing prisoners and ending the Israeli siege of Jericho, and other measures that the Israelis really have been dragging their feet on implementing, such as a Palestinian presence at international crossings and starting up of safe passage so that Palestinians can go between Gaza and Jericho.

Q: The Israelis have been afraid that if they engaged Arafat in discussions that would expand the powers of the Palestinian authority throughout the West Bank, then Arafat might not feel the need to go ahead with elections.

A: That is wrong. Arafat is fully committed, particularly now, to the election process. But, as the Oslo accord states, the elections will take place once the Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the West Bank cities and villages and other populated areas.

Q: How does Rabin look inside Israel as Arafat returns?

A: Rabin's trump card against his opposition is the success of the application and implementation of the Gaza-Jericho agreement. He came out smelling like roses! Every one of his generals is so satisfied with the way the security issue has moved. They are happy about the significant reduction in violence resulting from the agreement and the harmonious relations that have existed all along between the Palestinian police and the Israeli security forces.

All these things I think have vindicated his arguments to his extremists and rightists and fundamentalist elements that the agreement with the Palestinians would work, that the Palestinians can fulfill what they promised, and that (it) can result in direct dividends for the Israelis themselves.

Q: What is the state of internal PLO and Palestinian politics as Arafat visits Gaza? What about those members of the PLO in the negotiating team from the earlier Madrid process, like Hanan Ashrawi, who broke away, feeling that Arafat had not held out for enough? Is there a unification process going on now, or do you hold out hope for that?

A: Yes, this unification is in fact happening. Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi have come around. They either have talked with us in Gaza on the phone or came and visited Gaza to celebrate our success and to join hands to really produce an immediate resumption of the negotiations in which we will stand together. Faisal Husseini and others have accepted cabinet-minister positions in the new Palestinian authority.

I am afraid that the last to follow will be some of our intellectuals in America and other comfortable locations of the diaspora. People tend to get a more militant attitude when they are farther away from the territories. In the end, I am confident that they, too, will come along.

Q: Do you see yourself giving up life in Cairo to go back?

A: I have decided to go back home to Palestine. Absolutely, there is for me no hesitancy about this whatsoever. I have already taken the decision to abandon my private business in Cairo and to become a public official totally dedicated to building the Palestine that, for most of my life, was only a distant dream.

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