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President in Gaza Strip for 'Historic' Day, Vote

Mideast: Clinton watches as Palestinians renounce clauses in charter calling for Israel's destruction.

December 15, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The inauguration of Gaza International Airport three weeks ago was portrayed by Arafat at the time as "preparation for the declaration of a Palestinian state." Israeli authorities blocked its opening for 18 months, yielding only during the negotiations at Wye.

But Israel maintains control over the airspace. As a reminder, its jet fighters pierced the air over Gaza moments before Clinton arrived.

Clintons Take Low-Key Marine One Helicopter

The White House had, at one point, considered a dramatic scenario in which Clinton would fly here aboard Air Force One, the blue-white-and-silver symbol of the reach and power of the American presidency. But that was too much symbolism for Israeli officials. The lower-key, and more convenient, Marine One was substituted.

The olive-drab helicopter with the distinctive white top and presidential seal appeared from the northeast through a haze of sand stirred up by preceding aircraft.

Arafat greeted Clinton with a handshake and Hillary Rodham Clinton with a kiss on the hand as they stepped from their helicopter at 10:32 a.m. after the roughly half-hour flight from Jerusalem.

A Palestinian honor guard struggled to form a straight line, and a band played "The Happy Wanderer," an allusion to the wandering of Palestinian refugees seeking a homeland after they were ejected from the territory that became Israel 50 years ago.

The American flag and the Palestinian banner--broad stripes of green, white and black intersected by a red triangle along the staff--were hung from the airport control tower, catching a steady breeze.

Arafat, dressed in a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress, and a dark-green military tunic, flashed a "V" sign with two fingers of his right hand and held a red ribbon as Clinton snipped with a pair of scissors to ceremonially open the airport terminal. After one snip, Arafat, grinning broadly, picked up the ribbon and commanded Clinton to cut it again. And again. And again. A half-dozen times, in all, as the American president helped the Palestinian leader collect souvenirs of the day.

But Arafat's tenor of almost playful joy was absent in the impoverished camps to which Palestinians first fled half a century ago.

In the teeming Jabaliya camp near Gaza City, Abdul Jalil Freih, 55, sat with several other men outside an unfinished building.

"Clinton will not do anything for us," he said. "It doesn't matter to us whether he comes or goes."

Samir Oweis, 35, agreed. "The Israelis did not listen to him at Wye. You think they'll listen here? They only understand the language of force, not of peace."

Clinton Greeted With Affection and Hope

Such comments reflect a skepticism about how much the Americans will follow through--and more important, how much Palestinian autonomy Israel will agree to.

Indeed, in the five years since the Oslo peace accord was reached, Jewish settlements have sprung up throughout Gaza. They have been established behind electrified fences, eating up land in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on Earth. Israeli soldiers guard armored checkpoints, a constant reminder to Gazans of the unresolved status of the territory.

But Clinton was also greeted with affection and hope. Oversized pictures of the president and Arafat were displayed from signposts with the words "We have a dream. Free Palestine." And crossing the crowded streets, white banners with red letters proclaimed un-grammatically: "Welcome With President Clinton to Palestine, the land of love and peace."

Jihad Wazir, a key Palestinian organizer of the Gaza events, said: "I think the right of self-determination is an American concept. Woodrow Wilson invented it, but for now the American president has come here, and even though it's not stated, tacitly, he's saying we recognize your needs--and your day is coming."

Clauses 'Fully, Finally and Forever' Revoked

For the meeting at the Shawa convention center, members of the Palestine National Council, who made up roughly half the several hundred Palestinians present, were placed in the middle seats so they could be seen easily. At Arafat's command, they raised their hands to vote in favor of canceling the specific charter clauses, then jumped to their feet and applauded. Clinton applauded steadily from his seat, saying later that he considered the clauses "fully, finally and forever" revoked.

"The president made everybody feel we are on an equal footing in American eyes with the Israelis, for the first time," said Youssef Radi, a national council member who is the Palestinian ambassador to Ethiopia.

Khalid Kidrah, a member of the Fida party, a small faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said: "We have never heard an American president speak like this about Palestinian rights and asking the Israelis to respect these rights, even as he asked Palestinians to respect the security of Israel. He made a balance between us.

"By coming here, he helps encourage us to continue in the path of peace, and in this way, to reach our state," he said.

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