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  Gaza Sees Visit as Sign of 'New Era'

Palestinian controlled area.
Palestinian schoolgirls celebrate the arrival of President Clinton in Gaza. (Reuters)
By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page A1

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip, Dec. 14 – Perhaps not since the day Yasser Arafat returned to Gaza from his years of exile in 1994 have Palestinians felt such a surge of hope and wonder as they did today when President Clinton came calling.

Part of it was pageantry: the 100-foot-long American and Palestinian flags that swaddled the brand new airport control tower like gift wrapping; the stifling security, freshly whitewashed walls and ubiquitous welcome banners that announced this VIP was unlike any other; the big, noisy American choppers floating down one by one from a pale blue sky.

But even before they had heard him speak, Palestinians understood that the mere fact of an American president setting foot on their soil for the first time was a form of recognition and a symbolic windfall that would have been unthinkable until recently.

"Six years ago we were seen as distorted people, as terrorists," said Salah Tamari, a Palestinian lawmaker. "Now we are greeting and meeting the president of the United States. It's a practical recognition of our rights. If someone doesn't understand the significance of it, they are blind."

Said Sayed Shaban, an officer in the fledgling Palestinian navy: "Today we are in a new era and a new situation. Time is required to change things much more, and larger steps are still to be taken. But we have hopes for new conditions. Today, the world is here."

In a place identified for years with the burning of American flags, suddenly American flags were everywhere in Gaza, and none was set ablaze. Palestinians hung American flags from high-rise apartments, affixed them to the backs of bicycles, and, in a few zealous cases, draped them around their bodies.

In a place long associated with terrorists and militants – the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups have their strongholds here – most Palestinians were at pains to explain to visitors that no one in his right mind could possibly wish harm to befall so honored a guest.

School boys with barely a word of English managed precisely two today when they encountered Americans in the streets of Gaza City: "Clinton good!"

Stapled to trees and plastered on tenement walls, posters, murals and banners appeared of Clinton and Arafat, smiling side-by-side, with the heading: "We have a dream, SAME as yours. A free Palestine."

Three hours before Clinton's arrival, thousands lined the route from the airport, only to discover much later that he would be transported around Gaza by helicopter. So many people were glued to their televisions, or intimidated by the numbers of Palestinian troops deployed, that traffic through Gaza City's ordinarily teeming streets simply evaporated. Shops closed in the center of town, and merchants called it a sign of respect for their eminent visitor.

One Palestinian cleric, who hinted he had not always been so great a fan of the United States, shrugged when asked about Clinton and said simply: "We will remember it forever."

The enthusiasm seemed genuine, but it was not undiluted. In the Jabaliya Refugee Camp, desperately poor, trash-strewn and badly overcrowded, this sudden recasting of the United States' role sparked a new flicker of hope against a backdrop of traditional anti-Western resentments. In some cases, the result was confusion and cognitive dissonance.

Take the case of Abdul Fattah Sharfi, born and reared in Jabaliya's mean streets and a child of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation.

As a boy in the intifada, his idea of street theater was to torch an American flag in the gutter. Just because Clinton came calling in Gaza today, and thousands of his countrymen watched in awe, Sharfi was not about to scrap his conviction that the United States, Israel's ally, is fundamentally anti-Arab.

But somehow even Sharfi, 20, a history major at Gaza's Islamic University, was touched and heartened by Clinton's visit.

"I can't carry an American flag today – my conscience won't permit it," said Sharfi, baby-faced and articulate. "But I think Clinton coming here is a step toward creating a Palestinian state. ... It gives us some hopes."

The outpouring of hope unleashed by Clinton's visit was so great that it is almost certain to be followed by disappointment the morning after. It was a measure of the Palestinians' sense of aggrievement that so many seemed to invest so much into the appearance of one statesman for less than eight hours.

Several Palestinians said assuredly that when Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier this year that the Palestinians deserved an independent state, this most certainly could not have been an accident – even though the White House immediately distanced itself from the first lady's remark.

Clinton "will help us to regain our land, to regain Jerusalem, to regain what the Israelis took from us," said Khalil Mahmoud Biran, 54, a shop owner in Gaza City. "There is nothing wrong with the United States helping Israel, but at the same time we think now it can help us too."

Still, the president's appearance also prompted Palestinians to confront and discuss the question of Israel's security and its right to exist in a new, perhaps more realistic way.

"I was 16 when I went to work as a janitor in Israel, and I cried because even the room where they keep their garbage was nicer than the rooms we live in here in Jabaliya," said Shedadah Amoudi, 45, a shop owner. "Now the Americans are starting to understand the suffering of the Palestinian people. And we know that Israel has a right to exist, based on an agreement between both sides."

Were Palestinians willing to accept the United States as an ally, after so many years of mutual suspicion?

"We are Arabs – we are known for our hospitality," said Amoudi. "We always close our eyes to many past mistakes."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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