Steeling ourselves – but not for war

Palestinian politicians are now frequently being asked by journalists and diplomats whether they are preparing themselves and their people for the same possibilities as Israeli officials are readying for. They mean, of course, supplying the public with gas masks and making other preparations that assume that Iraq will send our way missiles carrying a conventional or nonconventional payload.

The negative Palestinian answer is usually surprising to these questioners, because it tells of a different kind of preparation and warns of a very different kind of danger. Palestinians are very worried about this war, specifically about the current right-wing extremist government in Israel, which is hostile to the Palestinian people and their leadership, and what it might do to us, taking advantage of the war and the subsequent diversion in the attention of the international community and the media.

Rightly or wrongly, the Palestinian side is not preparing for Iraqi attacks because on the one hand, there is a prevailing feeling among the leadership and their people that Iraq will not send missiles to this region, and on the other hand, the Palestinian Authority simply is not capable of making the same extensive preparations as the Israelis. Our infrastructure is barely hanging on.

Still, Palestinians are worried about the possibility of war because they fear a subsequent and dramatic change in the regional balance of power, which is likely to shift away from the Arabs, including the Palestinians, and could leave a significant mark on future negotiations. Palestinians are not able to take seriously American hints and oblique promises that after the war, the Middle East conflict will have its moment of truth. They see the war merely as a way to justify the current postponement of talks and freezing of all international (but especially American) diplomatic initiatives. In turn, the war is offering the government of Ariel Sharon the opportunity to continue its violent attempts to achieve its objectives by force and bring the Palestinians first to collapse, and finally to surrender.

Early warning signs of a deepening Palestinian crisis are already showing themselves. The American administration has been angered by the European position on Iraq and this is negatively affecting American support for and involvement in the activities of the “Quartet,” the high level committee on the problems of the Middle East. In turn, the Europeans have suddenly moved to justify their role in the Middle East and the existence of the Quartet by turning on a dramatic wave of pressure directed at Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. This week saw European officials pressing Arafat hard in an attempt to deliver him to the Americans on certain points – points the Palestinian leadership has resisted so far. These include the appointing of a prime minister and vice president.

It is not difficult to see, then, why most Palestinians do not think that the war in Iraq will have a strong direct or dramatic effect on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, other than indirect consequences such as a delay in diplomatic intervention, a possible escalation of Israeli pressure, and of course, a long-term destabilization of the regional balance of power.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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