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Mixed Signals

It was a grand day for the Palestinians. And in the course of it I thought of a remark Maria Mohammedi made. Maria, director of the Arts and Crafts Village of the municipality of Gaza, and an Algerian married to a Palestinian, actually made the remark twice, because the first time it was drowned out by two green-and-white helicopters. Passing low overhead, they were ferrying Bill Clinton and Yasir Arafat from Gaza's newly opened international airport to Arafat's residence in the Rimal quarter of Gaza. As they started descending toward the sea, and the Gazans in nearby al-Katiba Square lowered the hands that had been shading upward-cast eyes, Maria answered a question I had asked. "Very different," she said of the two people she has lived with. " The Algerians say what they think. The Palestinians say what you want to hear. They're like...." She wriggled a hand as if it was a fish out of water.

She was talking of social, not political, behavior. A firm supporter of the Palestinian cause, she was not seeking to strengthen my doubts about it. But my thoughts drifted back to her. For, ostensibly, the whole point of convening the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in Gaza in the extraordinary presence of an American president was to allay, once and for all, Israeli apprehensions that the Palestinians do not mean what they say when they declare their willingness to settle for a mini-state, in Gaza and the West Bank, that will live peacefully alongside Israel. This was the reason for resuscitating the basically defunct PNC one last time, long enough for it to repeal a charter calling for Israel's destruction.

As such, however, it was a futile exercise. There is no way in which repeal of the charter could have achieved such a goal, no way at this juncture that the Palestinians can say or do anything that could achieve it. Many Israelis who have no objection to Palestinian statehood per se remain fearful of its irredentist potential. This is not only because they worry that Maria might be right. It is also because (contrary to what is often asserted about them) they are quite capable of putting themselves in the Palestinians' shoes. In fact, they know better than anyone else what the Palestinians have lost because it is they who now possess it. And they know how little of it, even if the Palestinians' stated demands are met, will be gotten back.

"we have a dream: a free palestine" declared the posters of a thumbs-up Clinton and a V-signing Arafat decorating the streets of Gaza. But the Palestinians have two dreams, as a man in the Gaza neighborhood of Jabalya, the ex-refugee camp in which the intifada first started, put it to me that morning: the hilm zeghir and the hilm kebir, the "little dream" of a West Bank-Gaza state and the "big dream" of all of Palestine--and, from an Israeli point of view, the great unanswered question of the peace process has always been whether the Palestinians are prepared to give up the big dream for the little one.

The man in Jabalya tried to convince me that they were. "You have your country... We want ours. Its size doesn't matter," he said. Quick to smile and quick to anger, he didn't believe the Israelis intended to let him have it. "Netanyahu isn't straight," he complained. "He goes like this. Helk. Helk. Helk. Helk." Here. There. Here. There. His hand turned sharp corners like Maria's.

Some 20 men had gathered to listen, as quickly happens on any street in Gaza where a journalist stops to talk. Stools were put out on the sidewalk and cups of coffee brought--a little Palestinian national council of its own. A majority of it agreed with the stocky man. The 1967 lines were enough for a free Palestine. One man's family came from Majdal, on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip, where the city of Ashkelon now stands; he waved dismissively at the suggestion that he still had a claim to it. "When we have peace, there will be no borders anyhow," he said. "We'll come and go among you and you among us."

There was a murmur of assent. When it comes to future relations between a Jewish and a Palestinian state, it is the Jews, not the Palestinians, who want walls. Although the Palestinians have suffered far more from the Israelis than vice versa, they are also far less afraid of them.

There are obvious reasons for this. Terror is a more frightening, if less comprehensive, weapon than bureaucratic oppression, and it has been the Palestinians' weapon of choice. And it is always the haves who fear the have- nots, just as it is the have-nots who must make a living from the haves.

But it's more than that. The Palestinians may be a minority in historical Palestine, but they still feel like the majority they have traditionally been; deep down one senses in them a quiet confidence in the vast Arab world to which they belong and in their fundamental at-homeness in it. And the Jews, a majority, continue to feel like a minority: threatened, in danger of being uprooted, overwhelmed. The same porously bordered peace that might make a tiny sovereign enclave like Gaza seem livable to its Palestinian inhabitants would make most Israelis feel precariously exposed.

The Palestinian National Council that met several hours later in the Shawa Center in downtown Gaza did what was expected of it and raised its hands. Up to the moment the session commenced, its members still had not seen the resolution they were asked to approve. This did not seem to bother them. Standing in clusters outside the building, they waved and slapped backs as though at a class reunion. Many had not seen each other since the PNC's last plenary session, and many could not remember when that was.

My Arabic was not good enough to follow Arafat's talk, which he vigorously delivered with what appeared to be a stiff lower lip and the rhetorical triads that are the chairman's stock-in-trade. ("There are the signs of the resurrection of Palestine! The resurrection of Palestine! The resurrection of Palestine!") When stormy applause broke out, I asked the Jordanian reporter next to me what it was for. "The release of Palestinian prisoners," he said.

A problem of cultural assumptions once again. For Israelis, men who blow up women and children are criminals who belong in jail. But in traditional Palestinian life revenge taken on the family of the killers of your family is an expected thing, as is the fact that, once a sulha or ceremony of reconciliation is held, the score is settled, and all punitive action ceases. What kind of reconciliation with the Israelis is it, the Palestinians ask, if the rules of the sulha are not obeyed?

The delegates raised their hands to reaffirm Arafat's 1996 letter to Clinton disavowing the charter's call for an armed jihad against Israel, and the president rose to thank them. Mixing folksiness with moist-eyed eloquence, he was at his best. Twice he told the PNC members that the importance of their deed was that it spoke not to the Israeli government but to the Israeli people. It was a time for the Israeli people to wince at a government that, having inherited the friendliest U.S. president in its country's history, has ineptly and unnecessarily lost his esteem.

The Palestinians loved it. For once they were waving American flags instead of burning them. Decades of frustration and paranoia at Washington being in the Jews' pocket were suddenly gone. They put on the show they were asked for and were paid well for it. The sun was shining in Gaza.

On Shuhada Street I stopped for a shawarma. Some young boys were standing on a street corner. Did they know who was in Gaza today?

Of course. El-Rais Clinton.

And about the repeal of the Palestinian National Charter?

No. What was a charter?

And where they ready to let the Jews have Haifa?

Silence. Then: "No!" said a boy.


"No!" they all cried.

Safed? Tiberias? Ashdod? Beersheba?

"No, no, no, no!" It was all theirs. It was Palestine.

They were only boys. They would presumably grow up and learn to think like the men in Jabalya.

Assuming you could trust the men in Jabalya.

And wait 20 years to find out.

But Israel has to extend that trust now--or at least pretend to. There is no way for Israelis to know what goes on in Palestinian hearts. There may be no way for many Palestinians to know either. All that can be done is to take them at their word and give them every reason to stick to it.

By Hillel Halkin