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Divide Arabs, Conquer Palestinians

ISRAEL has everything it wants. Looking at the state of the peace talks, Israel seems to have recouped its losses of a few months back. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin invited Syria's leader to meet him (the Arab leader predictably rejected the offer). Israel seems to be offering to return Golan land to its adversary. Having announced a peace with Syria to be imminent, Israel now informs the world an agreement with Jordan is all but signed. Mr. Rabin halted the killings of Israeli policemen and civilians.

How astonishing! One must now make an effort to remember that only six months ago Israel's international standing was at an all-time low. On Dec. 26, the Rabin government expelled 415 Gaza residents from their homeland in an unprecedented retaliation. It was severely censured by the United Nations and earned another Security Council condemnation.

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Across the world, especially in Arab Gulf states, support for Palestinians escalated during the winter. The determined Palestinian men sitting out on the South Lebanon hills became a symbol of Israeli injustice and the enduring Palestinian will. It won widespread support among Palestinians inside and abroad on a scale unseen since the outset of the intifadah.

Today the expellees remain on the hillside. They may be more comfortable during summer. They may claim to enjoy popular support. Still, they remain expelled. Also, three Americans sit in Israeli jails - Palestinians detained without charge or for alleged ties to the Hamas organization. The US State Department failed to secure their release.

Six months after Israel could barely face the world community and Palestinians gloated over a symbolic Hamas victory, the situation is totally different. At the end of the 10th round of peace talks in Washington, Palestinians seem in a weaker position than ever.

On the ground in the occupied territories, among the 2 million people there, poverty is at a new low. Starvation, while still rare, was unheard of before in Gaza and the West Bank. Joblessness is the norm. Deaths of Palestinians shot by Israeli troops were 36 in May. This is the deadliest month for Palestinians in years, yet it is barely reported in the United States press. The relentless killing seems to have had no impact on the peace talks.

Few can imagine the deterioration of life across the occupied territories today. The early months of the intifadah now appear mild by comparison. The 14,000 Palestinians languishing in prison are joined by new prisoners every night. Daily, conditions of townspeople more closely approximate those of prisons. The closure of the green line separating the West Bank and Gaza from Israel proper is wreaking havoc for Palestinians. Links between the majority of the population, living in villages and towns, and J erusalem, their cultural and spiritual center, are cut.

Old and young, youths and breadwinners are equally affected. Palestinians no longer have access to Jerusalem for business, prayer, or medical treatment. Road blocks are increased with endless security checks of Palestinians. Special passes are the norm. This is a tremendous burden when one understands that Palestinians are already kept waiting in long lines, often fruitlessly, for petty technical reasons. Military occupation brings with it many rules for which occupied peoples must pay fees, secure permi ts, hire lawyers, travel to prisons, make petitions, and submit applications. And now - further prohibitions.

Paralleling this deterioration on the ground is the Palestinians' diplomatic retirement. Yes, the PLO can say it is now "recognized." With Faisal al-Husseini - more or less appointed by Israel to be the Palestinians' chief negotiator - in direct talks with the PLO leadership in Tunis, one could say the PLO is almost legitimate. Ironically, this comes at a time when the 2 million Palestinians under occupation have almost rejected their secular leadership. They feel further alienated from the PLO because, as other leaders have warned, "nothing remains to be negotiated."

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They see conditions worsening daily as their delegates talk on with the Israelis. "What is Mr. Husseini negotiating for us?," they ask. A self-regulating police force for the West Bank and Gaza? Administration of food subsidies brought in through Israel because local farmers have no water and no work?

People living under this occupation have always been skeptical of the limited autonomy being offered by Israel. They see no one talking about Palestinian rights to East Jerusalem. The right of return for diaspora Palestinians is not a topic, nor is a demand to release political detainees or remove the Jewish settlements - once a major "obstacle to peace," to quote former Secretary of State James Baker III.

By comparison, the Clinton administration is almost ignoring the settlement issue. It gave a go-ahead for some of the $2 billion in US- guaranteed loans to be used for development of those illegal Jewish communities.

Ironically this regression on Palestinian rights is matched by several apparent advances between Israel and other Arabs. Although unofficial, an announcement came from Kuwait that Arab states are ending their boycott of companies doing business with Israel, although Israel did not hail the announcement by Kuwait as a positive move for which it would offer a parallel retreat.

Israel has its own agenda. It now offers news that it had all but signed a treaty with Jordan. It releases statements about moving closer to a treaty with Syria; Israel is simply waiting for the Syrians, they inform us.

How can Palestinian negotiators return to face their people?

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