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Israelis Reject PLO’s Statehood Declaration : Clampdown Subdues Celebration by Arabs in West Bank, Gaza

Times Staff Writer

Israel flatly rejected the Palestinians’ declaration of an independent nation Tuesday and posted soldiers throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to make sure that no one celebrated the event, even by singing.

Palestinians in the occupied territories greeted the news of the declaration of independence, made in Algiers early Tuesday, with subdued satisfaction. Some said they are pleased that their 11-month-old uprising against Israeli rule has led to a statement that gives them a sense of identity. Others hoped that even if Israel dismisses the declaration, other countries, especially the United States, might look favorably on it.

Official Israeli reaction was cold. “It’s another step in the war of Arab terrorist organizations against the existence and independence of the state of Israel, and we will respond accordingly,” said Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Shamir, apparently concerned about a possible public relations coup by the Palestine Liberation Organization, also said: “We will continue, as long as is necessary, to convince all the nations of the world that conferring recognition abets this creature . . . in the elimination of the state of Israel.”

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In a written statement, the Foreign Ministry added: “Once again, the organization that claims to represent the Palestinian people proves unable or unwilling to recognize reality. In its new statements, ambiguity and double talk are again employed to obscure its advocacy of violence, resort to terrorism and adherence to extreme positions.”

One Foreign Ministry official termed the declaration “meaningless,” based on two points that he said are unacceptable to Israel.

First, although the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s legislature, endorsed a U.N. resolution that calls for safe borders for all Middle Eastern states--including, by implication, Israel--it linked that endorsement to a demand for Palestinian “self-determination,” or statehood. Israeli officials said the demand muddled the PLO’s indirect acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.

The council, which is sometimes called the Palestinians’ parliament in exile, also renounced terrorism but defended the Palestinians’ right to struggle against Israeli occupation. The Foreign Ministry official interpreted the PLO’s statement on terrorism as, at best, applying only outside Israel. “We still see the PLO as a terrorist organization,” he said.

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Israeli officials were clearly concerned that foreign governments might welcome a Palestinian state, even one with no defined borders. So far, at least 14 countries, including 10 Arab nations, have recognized the state.

For the moment, all eyes here are on Egypt, the only Arab country that recognizes Israel, Foreign Ministry officials said. As of late Tuesday, Egypt had not recognized the Palestinians’ declaration of nationhood.

“Any recognition or legitimization of the declarations will not be conducive to peace in the Middle East,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry statement cautioned.

Many Palestinians in the occupied territories viewed the PLO statement as the fruit of their revolt against Israeli occupation. They noted that the uprising, known in Arabic as the intifada , had made the PLO, Israel and foreign governments take note of their grievances and placed the Palestinian issue at the center of Middle East diplomacy.

“I am happy that we Palestinians are challenging Israel with peace,” said Elias Freij, the mayor of Bethlehem.

“We’ve been waiting for this,” added Jack Elias, a hotel manager. “I feel like a human being.”

Tuesday was the first time in 21 years of Israeli occupation that Bethlehem was placed under military curfew. Except for a bus full of German tourists, only Israeli army jeeps could be seen patrolling the streets.

In Jerusalem, which was not under curfew, the PLO statement was read at a prayer service in Al Aqsa Mosque, next to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock. About 250 congregants lined up to sign the document, participants said.

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“It is the triumph of moderation, the beginning of a new era,” declared Hanna Siniora, one of the signers and the editor of Al Fajr, the leading Arabic newspaper in Jerusalem.

Siniora dismissed Israeli objections to the declaration as nit-picking. “If you want to look at it word for word, you can always find something you don’t like,” he said.

To coincide with the Algiers announcement, the clandestine, PLO-allied Unified National Leadership for the Uprising in the Occupied Territories had scheduled Tuesday as a day of celebration. But the Israeli army’s show of force evidently discouraged most revelry.

Residents of Palestinian refugee camps on the West Bank spent their first day of declared independence at home, hemmed in by a thoroughly enforced curfew. Besides Bethlehem, the curfew order also emptied the streets of the major towns of Beit Sahur, Beit Jala, Qalqiliya, Tulkarm and Nablus, as well as the entire coastal Gaza Strip.

Troops using loudspeakers warned Arabs in villages and cities alike that they faced arrest and fines of up to $10,000 if they were caught singing “My Homeland, My Homeland,” a nationalist ballad. A few dared anyway.

In the village of Zurbahir, soldiers called residents into the streets to erase pro-PLO graffiti and to clear rocks placed on the road by protesters. “That is how we spent our first day of independence,” said Ali Atrash, a father of four.


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