"Since last November, Allan's post office has been issuing its own stamps; printed in Germany, they feature the Palestinian flag, Bethlehem at Christmastime and a beaming Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat posing with Pope John Paul II."

U.S. News & World Report

October 21, 1996

pages 54-55

Get the latest on the strife in the Mideast




From tiny postage stamps, mighty nations grow. Or so hopes Ghazi Allan, director of the Palestinian Ministry of Telecommunications and Post. Since last November, Allan's post office has been issuing its own stamps; printed in Germany, they feature the Palestinian flag, Bethlehem at Christmastime and a beaming Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat posing with Pope John Paul II.

As declarations of statehood go, it's not much. But with the failure of the emergency Middle East summit at the White House two weeks ago and a continuing deadlock in negotiations with Israel, a number of Palestinian leaders are advocating a far more radical step than mere postage-stamp diplomacy: They are talking about an outright, unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence.

While statehood has always been the Palestinian goal, under the Oslo Peace Accords a settlement of the "final status" of the territories was to be deferred until 1999. A unilateral change in the legal status of the West Bank and Gaza would violate the accords; it would also, in the view of many Israelis, be madness.

The calculus looks different from the Palestinian side. In spite of Israel's agreement last week to proceed with a long-delayed withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron, frustration over the slow pace of negotiations to expand Palestinian authority remains intense--and was at the root of the rioting that took the lives of 58 Palestinians and 15 Israelis last month. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has authorized expansion of Jewish settlements and bypass roads on the West Bank and underscored the permanence of Israel's claim to Jerusalem in numerous ways, including the demolition of a Palestinian youth center and the opening of the archaeological tunnel that triggered the riots. Rightly or wrongly, Palestinians see in these policies a concerted plan to subvert the Oslo agreement and their dream of statehood.

Dajavu. Palestinian and Israeli analysts expect Arafat to wait at least a month to see whether renewed negotiations--possibly combined with more violence--yield further Israeli concessions. "If Netanyahu does not honor Oslo, Palestinians will find no other option" but to declare independence, says Mahdi Abdel Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academy for the Study of International Affairs and an informal adviser to Arafat.

Actually, Arafat declared independence once before, on Nov. 15, 1988, after the first year of the stone-throwing insurrection known as the intifada. He was trying to assert his leadership over the teenagers running through the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, even though he was hundreds of miles away in North Africa. Many of his own people scoffed. The world yawned. Nothing changed.

But just suppose for a moment that the Palestinians declared independence again and the gambit worked--the world supported them and Israel acquiesced, unlikely as that may be. What next? How ready are they to govern? Do they have the economic base and the skills to be independent?

Today, Arafat lives in Gaza and controls a police force--an army, truth be told--of at least 30,000 men. The Palestinians have an elected, 88-member Legislative Council, 21 functioning ministries, their own passports, license plates, TV station, schools and banks.

The 16,000-employee Palestinian Ministry of Education, using a Jordanian curriculum, has kept the schools running remarkably well despite financial hardships. The Palestinian population has an 80 percent literacy rate; many administrators possess years of experience acquired under Israeli or Jordanian rule or living abroad. Allan, a 23-year veteran of West Bank post offices under Israeli rule, began as a window clerk and rose to general comptroller of the East Jerusalem post office.

Civilian courts are operating. Ramadan Ghizawi, 30, of the West Bank town of Al Birah said he was unable for many years to settle a boundary dispute with his neighbor. Under Israeli occupation, to take a case to Israeli courts was seen as an act of collaboration.

But directly or indirectly, Israel keeps control of many essential services for which there are no ready Palestinian substitutes. In the Palestinian tax office in Ramallah, auditors work on computers in Hebrew because the data crunching is performed by an Israeli firm under an $800,000-a-year contract. The telephone lines in Arafat's seaside office in Gaza belong to Bezeq, the Israeli state-owned phone company.

And Arafat's face may be on the postage stamps, but if he mailed a declaration of independence to the world, it probably wouldn't even arrive: Letters going out of the West Bank are still handled by the Israeli Post Office, and Israel has already seized the opportunity of showing who's boss by refusing to honor some Palestinian stamps because they are denominated in mils, a pre-1948 currency that is symbolic of independence. Only stamps marked in fils -- the Jordanian equivalent of cents -- are delivered.

The Palestinian economy is humblingly reliant on Israel. In 1992, before the peace accord, wages earned by Palestinians working inside Israel accounted for about 25 percent of the gross national product of Gaza and the West Bank. But since then, Israel has frequently closed the borders in response to terrorist attacks. The average number of Palestinians working daily inside Israel has dropped from 116,000 in 1992 to fewer than 25,000 this year. Even before the latest closure, unemployment in the Palestinian territories had shot up to 50 percent. The resulting shortfall in tax revenues has sent the authority's budget deficit soaring to a projected $126 million this year, $57 million more than planned.

Among ordinary Palestinians there is both a thirst for independence and concern that the Palestinian Authority is not ready to govern -- at least not democratically. Arafat has prevented the Legislative Council from adopting a constitution that would limit his powers as rayees, or head of state. Palestinian officials no longer try to deny that Arafat's security forces commit torture and secret military courts hold summary trials. Corruption is rife. One of Arafat's economic advisers is nicknamed "Mr. Commission" because he takes a percentage of so many business deals. Among the worst abusers are the Palestinian police, who supplement their $100-a-month salaries by extorting money from merchants. In East Jerusalem, several businessmen recently were asked to "donate" 10 Land Rovers, at $50,000 apiece, for top Palestinian officials. Two who refused were kidnapped, and their businesses burned.

But the greatest obstacle to independence has to be the territorial reality. The map of towns under Palestinian control in the West Bank is so spotty it is called "the Leopard." Gaza is almost solidly in Arafat's hands, but is geographically isolated, with no right of safe passage.

Shifting sympathies. If there is one godfather of a new Palestinian declaration of independence, it is Faisal Husseini, a top PLO official and Arafat's Minister for Jerusalem Affairs. He believes that Palestinian independence would be recognized not only by countries in Africa, Asia and the Third World but also by much of Western Europe--a big change from just a year or two ago. European governments strongly condemned Israel for the tunnel incident and now "see clearly that Netanyahu is the one responsible" for the breakdown in implementing the 1994 Oslo Accords, says Husseini. American recognition is not in the cards, but Palestinians see a shift there too and relished reports that President Clinton was dismayed by Netanyahu's refusal to make even token concessions at the White House summit.

Husseini says Israel would have only two options if independence were declared: If it tries to reoccupy the West Bank militarily,

Other Palestinian officials are unconvinced, fearing Husseini's plan could backfire, giving Netanyahu the excuse he is looking for to cancel the Oslo Accords. But increasingly Palestinians see that they have less and less to lose. King Hussein of Jordan warned that "the psychological moment when people begin to lose hope is close by." With enough desperation, even the ridiculous can begin to look like common sense.





October 1996

page 6,7