Olive Branches and Uzis Share Podium at Rallies in West Bank

The courtyard of the elementary school in this Palestinian village was filled Thursday with exhilarated youths, chanting nationalist slogans in front of walls covered with Palestine Liberation Organization flags and portraits of Yasir Arafat.

It was a rare phenomenon in the territories — not only because the crowd of several hundred mainly youthful Palestinians blatantly ignored the official Israeli ban on political gatherings, but also because it was a conspicuous local expression of support for the peace conference in Madrid and the pro-PLO delegates participating in it.

In terms of internal Palestinian politics, the significance of the rally, one of several held Thursday in various parts of the West Bank, was that it came in response to a general strike in the territories staged successfully by Palestinian rejectionist groups.

The strike was called to protest the “surrender” of the Palestinian delegation and Arafat’s wing of the PLO to American and Israeli dictates.

Arafat supporters have claimed that the near total observance of the strike was more a result of fear of violence by the hard-liners than an indication of agreement with their line.

Arraba has long been a stronghold of Arafat’s Al Fatah wing of the PLO. But pro-Arafat rallies were held elsewhere in the territories.

In Ramallah, hundreds took part in processions through the streets of the city, following the speech in Madrid by the head of the Palestinian delegation, Haider Abdel-Shafi. A noisy motorcade of cars tooting their horns set out on the main road from Ramallah to Jerusalem, while Palestinians on foot covered military jeeps with olive branches, as smiling border police looked on.

IS MESSAGE REALLY ‘ONE OF PEACE’?

In Arraba, army soldiers were not on the scene. Only a small force of soldiers manned a checkpoint at the entrance to the village.

Speakers at the rally, mostly local activists of the Shabiba, the outlawed youth movement of Al Fatah, outdid each other with nationalist speeches. They expressed support for the Madrid peace conference, but at the same time stressed their determination to continue the intifada and the armed struggle against Israel.

As if to prove they meant business, during one of the speeches, a car drove into the school courtyard, carrying two youths on its bumper, each brandishing an Uzi submachine gun.

To the cheers of the crowd, they strode up to the podium, rifles in one hand and olive branches in the other, imitating Arafat’s gesture in his 1974 speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

As a reporter tried to leave the scene, a local youth pounded on the car window to ensure that he would not leave with the mistaken impression. “Don’t get us wrong. The message that should come out of here is one of peace, not war,” he said.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, along with new hopes for peace, the rifles and pistols are out there in the territories, and they are being used more than ever in the past. This week two Israelis, a mother of seven and a father of four, paid with their lives as another segment of the Palestinian population made its views on the peace process starkly clear.

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