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Thursday, 1 November, 2001, 22:05 GMT
Palestinians doubt Blair can deliver
Yasser Arafat and Tony Blair
Many Palestinians want Mr Blair to do more for them
Barbara Plett

Sirens wailing, lights flashing, Tony Blair swept through Gaza in a 20-car convoy, the highest ranking visitor since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising.

Yasser Arafat was happy to host the UK prime minister two weeks after his visit to Number 10 Downing Street.

All the Palestinian people feel that England doesn't make anything for us

Palestinian shopkeeper
The Palestinian leader is eager to strengthen international support for a Palestinian state, and Mr Blair has the ear of Washington, the real power in the Middle East.

So, pomp and ceremony at the meeting; on the street, though, little enthusiasm.

Some people gathered to watch Mr Blair pass by, but not many.

Palestinians see him as part of a never-ending diplomatic merry-go-round here that has brought lots of talk and no action.

They also bear an old grudge.

"All the Palestinian people feel that England doesn't make anything for us," said shopkeeper Osama Kamal, "Only for Israel, only for Israel, only for Israel!"

Britain's historical role

The British War Cemetery is a good place to escape the noise and squalor of Gaza, the carpet of grass between the graves carefully manicured, framed by a stone wall draped with flowers in vibrant pinks and purples.

Tony Blair and Yasser Arafat at a press conference in Gaza
The Palestinians want a state with its capital in Jerusalem

It is also a good place to trace Britain's longstanding links to the region.

Most of the soldiers buried beneath the rows of uniform headstones fought during the First World War.

That was when Britain's foreign secretary Lord Balfour endorsed the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, in a document known as the Balfour Declaration.

The British handed the conflict over to the United Nations just as it started to get bloody, and the Palestinians have never forgiven them.

Not everyone doing their morning shopping in Gaza City's central market may have heard of Tony Blair, but every one has heard of Lord Balfour.

People buying their daily fruits and vegetables stopped long enough to tell the BBC that the British should give the Palestinians a new declaration endorsing their national dreams.

Mr Blair has verbally supported the idea.

After his meeting with Mr Arafat he again said the foundation stones of peace were security for Israel and a state for the Palestinians.

Mutual demands

The repetition of this demand in the language of western diplomacy, essentially fixing it on the international agenda, could be called an achievement of sorts.

Israeli woman holds a placard denouncing Yasser Arafat
Israel wants Arafat to arrest Palestinian militants

But people here want more, much more.

They want the British prime minister and other international leaders to press Israel to agree to terms that would create a viable state.

Like all mediators in this conflict Mr Blair would have passed along Israeli demands that Mr Arafat arrest those who carry out attacks on Israel.

When he was challenged to explain how a people could resist occupation without violence, he described extremism and bloodshed as foes common to all people.

Despite such impassioned speeches, many Palestinians like businessman Assam Abu Shabaan doubt that Mr Blair can fix things now.

"Britain was a great power in the world then," at the time of the Balfour Declaration.

"It's not so now," he said. "The British can actually express what they feel towards the Palestinians, but they cannot probably do what they could have done many years ago."

See also:

01 Nov 01 | Media reports
Mid-East papers sceptical over Blair tour
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
Blair seeks return to Mid-East peace
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Blair's delicate diplomacy
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
Anti-British demo cancelled
01 Nov 01 | UK
Blair the 'quiet American'
31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Syria trip 'opens bridge for dialogue'
31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Arab world gives Blair tough message
26 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: US unease over Israeli action
01 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Rebel MPs push for war vote
15 Oct 01 | Middle East
Q&A: A Palestinian state?
01 Nov 01 | UK
The Balfour Declaration
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