Palestinians `the victims'

THE American are pushing a roadmap for peace in the West Bank and Gaza, designed to create an independent Palestine and give security to Israel within its internationally established borders.

THE American are pushing a roadmap for peace in the West Bank and Gaza, designed to create an independent Palestine and give security to Israel within its internationally established borders. EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES has been listening to the hopes and fears of the Palestinians.

AS an ambassador for his people, Afif Safieh is a tireless worker. For the past 13 years, he was been the voice in the United Kingdom of more than three million stateless souls who have been living under the occupation of Israel.

He sits in his office in an obscure side street of a London suburb, surrounded by heavy security. Such is the nature of the conflict that even the man who has diplomatic status to represent the Palestinians in London and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation at the Vatican has to be vigilant at all times.

Since the 1967 war, when Israel repelled an attack by Arab forces and extended its borders de facto to take in Jordan's West Bank, Egypt's Gaza Strip, and Syria's Golan Heights, Palestinians have lived in the shadow of Israeli troops and tanks.

Israel compounded its occupation by deliberately settling its own citizens in the West Bank and Gaza in what was an open colonisation of territory which Palestinians want to claim as their own Independent state.

"We are the victims of the victims of European history," asserts Afif Safieh. "The Jewish race was victimised by the Nazis and to overcome its guilt, the world created the state of Israel.

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"That same world has until now tolerated Israeli aggression against the Palestinians. We have now become the victims in our own land.

"An opinion poll conducted in Israel last year showed that 57% of Israelis favoured ethnic cleansing – that is deporting the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. If Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had his way, he would kick out Yasir Arafat from the city of Ramallah and from Palestine."

The United States is desperate to bring stability to the region, in part to appease Arab opinion following the Iraq war. President George W Bush, backed by Tony Blair, has backed a roadmap for peace, written by the US, UN, EU, and Russia..

Phase one, which is meant to be implemented by May 31, would see an end to Arab terrorism, normalisation of Palestinian life, Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory, an end to Jewish settlement, and elections in Palestine.

Phase two, to be completed by December, would see the creation of a Palestinian state while 2005 would be the deadline for a permanent end to conflict and agreement on final borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.

These timescales will never be achieved. Because Sharon has refused to deal with Arafat, the Palestinians have appointed a Prime Minister to negotiate on their behalf. His name is Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen but Arafat is still in control.

Says Afif Safieh: "The roadmap is a package from the international community, which expects both sides in the dispute to implement in a parallel, simultaneous manner.

"It is not for Palestine to carry out its part and then for Sharon to decide whether he will. The international will must prevail – peace is too important to leave to the Israelis.

"We have respected our commitments to the international community and it is now up to the international community to respect its commitments to us."

Yet is it reasonable to expect the Israelis to agree to the establishment of what they see as a hostile state on their borders while suicide bombers are blowing themselves up on buses and in shopping centres, killing and maiming Israeli citizens?

"Once Israel accepts that we should have nationhood, the Palestinian people will not support terrorist groups that try to wreck what we have striven for over so many years," says Mr Safieh. "The attacks in Israel appal the vast majority of Palestinians. They will stop – we want peace.

"At the moment, we are a captive society with a captive economy. Our businesses can't function because of the Israeli occupation, our tourism cannot flourish.

"It is nakba – a catastrophe. For 36 years, 3.5 million Palestinians have been enslaved. But I am convinced, the world will not tolerate this much longer.

"Support for Palestine statehood is growing – it is no longer electoral suicidal in Britain to be pro-Palestine.

"But we are frustrated by the length of time it is taking to achieve. It took six days for Israel to occupy Palestine – it could withdraw in six days. The longer it takes, the more mistrust is inflamed."

The day after we spoke, Ariel Sharon announced he is prepared to "accept the steps prescribed" in the road map peace plan that will lead to a Palestinian state and he would present it to his Cabinet for approval.

The statement followed weeks of hesitation, and came just hours after the Bush administration assured Israel that its concerns regarding the plan would be taken into account.

At long last, peace may be on the horizon.

AFIF SAFIEH

Afif Safieh has been Palestinian General Delegate to the United Kingdom since 1990 and Director of the Office of representation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to the Holy See in Rome since 1995.

Born in Jerusalem in 1950, he was educated at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and the Foundation Nationale des Sceinces Politiques, Paris. Between 1978 and 1981, he was in charge of European affairs for President Arafat's offcie in Beirut and following three years as a visiting scholar at Harvard, he became the PLO representative to the Netherlands. In 1995, was joined the International Board of Trustees of Bethlehem University, the Vatican-sponsored university in Palestine.

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