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One vision, another reality.

WHEN YITZHAK RABIN came to office as Israel's prime minister in July 1992 it was with a "vision" of achieving peace between Israelis and Arabs. Little more than six months later, following the expulsion to Lebanon in mid-December of 415 alleged Islamic militants and a sharp escalation in the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories, it is looking ever less likely the premier's "vision" will come to pass.

Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, has been outspoken. "I think we have witnessed the worst period since Rabin was defence minister. People are being killed at a very high rate, houses are being destroyed by anti-tank missiles and hundreds of people have been deported." Rumours that the pending peace talks between Israel and the Arabs are being used as a cover, allowing Rabin to continue a programme of harassment in the Occupied Territories, are gaining momentum daily among Palestinians.

The deported Palestinians remain in Lebanon. The appalling conditions they continue to suffer have attracted sympathy worldwide. The "all or nothing" response with which the Palestinians met Israel's offer to let 100 of their number return, has for the most part evoked a considerable degree of sympathy. Israel stands accused of treating the exiled men as a commodity which can be traded -- sight unseen -- in return for international approval.

Following a trial visit to Israel and the West Bank recently, a staff member of The Middle East observed: "The Israelis seem to be pursuing a policy of attempting to ignore the existence of the Palestinians around them and they are certainly keen that any foreign visitor to the region should do the same.

"I did not hear the word Palestinian spoken by an Israeli during my seven-day visit to the area. Bedouins, non-Jews and Jordanians were all the terms employed to describe the people I saw living in and around Jericho and Bethlehem, in the heart of the West Bank -- but never Arab or Palestinian."

On passing through a small Palestinian village where most of the houses had clearly been demolished and their former occupants forced into make-shift accommodation, the reporter was told by an Israeli Ministry of Tourism official: "These people often prefer to live in tents or to move into houses others have moved out of. Many here are very poor because they are paying high rents to rich landowners living in the emirates."

Like the decision to exile more than 400 Palestinians, such explanations are an affront. But the Israelis will continue to pay lip service to a phoney premise as long as they feel they might usefully get away with it. However, people are more likely to believe the evidence of their eyes than of official propaganda.

In Manger Square in Bethlehem, visitors from all over the world flock to the church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. It is impossible to enter the building without passing an Israeli army station. Next door, a small cafe with tables outside sells soft drinks, falafel and shawarma to passing tourists. It is possible to sit here with a cold drink, while six Israeli soldiers with machine guns pace up and down in the sunshine only a few inches away behind a 12-foot high wire fence. Even in tourist resorts such as Eilat the sight of young men carrying sub machine-guns is commonplace. For visitors from many parts of the world it is unnerving to see two or three young men in casual clothes enter a bar, each with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, sit down to enjoy a glass of beer or wine.

But it is on leaving Israel that the visitor unavoidably comes face to face with the reality of the situation. Airport security is thorough and few passengers are given clearance in less than 10 or 15 minutes. Questions such as: "Do you have any friends or family in Israel?", "Did you speak to anyone in Jerusalem or Bethlehem?", "Did you exchange addresses with anyone?", or "Did anybody give you any parcels or packages?" are perhaps more understandable than "Who paid for your airline ticket?" "Which restaurant did you eat in during your stay?", "What is your relationship to your travelling companions?" or "Why are you travelling without your children?"

Prospective travellers are questioned separately by two officials who then confer before they are allowed to proceed to the departure lounge. The Middle East staff member noted: "Everyone was quizzed in this way and some passengers were clearly distressed, for although the security officials were polite and emphasised that the questioning was for the safety of passengers, many of the questions were very personal. One passenger, travelling with his wife, confessed he had not accompanied her on a tour of Jerusalem but had chosen instead to remain in his room at his hotel working on some papers from his office. His wife was asked to verify his story and he was required to produce papers and a tape recorder he had claimed to be using in the course of his work."

All international airports have pledged to step up security and Israel has every reason to be wary. Few passengers are likely to complain, given that it is their immediate safety that is being protected. It is the disparity between the image portrayed and the reality which is so jarring.

There are problems of internal security and whatever tourists are told, soldiers with machine guns at every ice cream parlour and holy site give the game away. There is a large Palestinian population living without any of the considerable advantages enjoyed by Israeli families. Referring to the Palestinians as Bedouins or Jordanians will not make them go away or make their lives any more tolerable. Israel is saying one thing while doing another. It is a charge which may equally be applied to the arbitrary decision in mid-December to round up more than 400 men and dump them over the border. Not least, it brings into question Rabin's much vaunted "vision" of peace.
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Title Annotation:Israel's foreign policy
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:1009
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