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DAWN - the Internet Edition

12 September 2000 Tuesday 13 Jamadi-us-Saani 1421


A much-needed breather
Begum Zaibunnissa Hamidullah

A much-needed breather

THE Palestinian Central Council's decision on Sunday to delay the declaration of an independent Palestinian state will be generally welcomed as a goodwill gesture to promote the cause of peace in the Middle East. There is no questioning the fact that had the Council proceeded with its earlier timetable of declaring an independent state on September 15, it would have spelt the certain death of the Oslo peace process. It has now been decided that the PLO's mini-parliament will meet again on November 15, the date when a symbolic declaration of statehood-in-exile had been made in 1988 when the intifada was at its height. In the coming two months preparations will be made for the declaration of independence and in November the final decision will be taken on when the Palestinian state should come into existence.

These might appear to be technicalities, but in reality this measure has been taken to give the fragile peace process, now on the verge of a collapse, yet another chance. Under pressure from all sides, including the Arab world, Yasser Arafat had already hinted that the September 15 deadline would be moved forward. Hence the Council's decision did not take the world by surprise. What is of greater significance is that an announcement was more or less simultaneously made from Gaza saying that Palestinian-Israeli talks would resume on Monday. Mr Ehud Barak's positive response to the Palestinian gesture also gives rise to some hope that all may not yet have been lost, notwithstanding the failure of President Clinton to break the impasse in the brief sessions he had with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders separately in New York at the UN's millennium summit.

Yet one should not be overly optimistic that this delay in the declaration of statehood will resolve the deadlock between the two countries over the issues of intense contention such as the future of Al Quds, return of Palestinian refugees and final boundaries of the Palestinian state. It will only give them some more time to make fresh attempts to resolve differences. The danger, however, is that the delay might only postpone the final breakdown. The factors working against a successful outcome are many. The coming months are not exactly very favourable for intense and meaningful negotiations. Mr Clinton, who is the key intermediary, is a lame duck president and will soon be caught up in the election campaign for the Democratic Party. Israel is also heading for a major political crisis when the Knesset meets in October to debate a bill on calling mid-term elections. With many of its coalition partners having defected, the ruling Labour Party does not have a majority in the parliament and can hardly be expected to enter into negotiations involving some serious give-and-take with its opponents. Finally, with no blueprint of a plan for Al Quds on the table before the two sides - the Camp David summit's collapse in July spelt the end of the rather one-sided scheme that had been put up - the talks will have to begin from scratch on the future of the Holy City. Since negotiations will be at a lower level one can hardly expect any dramatic decisions to emerge out of them.

Hence one can just keep one's fingers crossed and hope for the best. It is not known whether the two sides have so far considered the suggestions mooted in some quarters that Al Quds be internationalized and be made an open city. There is the other option of putting off a final decision on the future of the city to a future date but concluding a peace deal on all the other issues, some of which are pretty contentious too, namely the borders and the refugee question. But these questions are not as emotive and sensitive as Al Quds. But the postponement announced by the Palestinian Authority is a pause that the two sides should utilize in all seriousness to compose their differences on the remaining issues. A breakdown of the Oslo process at this stage will be extremely damaging for them given the fact that partial Israeli withdrawal has already taken place, and failure to reach a final settlement would make the West Bank more insecure than ever.

The militants and hardliners in the Islamist party are waiting to see the outcome of the negotiations, just as extremists on the Israeli side too are straining at the leash to get going should the cul-de-sac be finally reached. If the talks break down the floodgates of extremism and violence will be thrown open and the Middle East will become the scene of a conflagration of the most horrific kind. So the urgency for a peace deal could not be greater than it is now. Israel and the Palestinians should now seek to work on the common ground between them to avoid a deadly confrontation.

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Begum Zaibunnissa Hamidullah

THE death of Begum Zaibunnissa Hamidullah in Karachi on Sunday removes from amidst us a pioneer amongst the subcontinent's women journalists. A column writer for English newspapers, including Dawn, Zaibunnissa launched Pakistan's first woman's weekly in English. Even though a socialite magazine, Mirrorcould often cause ripples by its strong political editorials critical of the policies and actions of the rulers of the day in a language and style that at times earned her the wrath of the wielders of power. The power of her pen rattled Ayub Khan when she lashed out at him for elevating himself to the rank of Field Marshal, and in November, 1957, his predecessor, Iskander Mirza, shut the paper down for six months when Mirrorflayed him for dismissing the Suhrawardy ministry. The paper was read as much for its social content as for the biting sarcasm and wit that characterized the writings of its editor.

The daughter of S. Wajid Ali, a presidency magistrate in Calcutta holding the rank of a high court judge and himself a well-known writer in Bengali, Zaibunnissa first came into attention when one of her poems, written for Mirrorof London won a prize in a contest. That unleashed a talent for writing that saw her write columns for theStar of India, Calcutta, and the Morning Newsalso of Calcutta (later Dhaka). "Through a Woman's Eye," her column in Dawn , started in 1949 and ended after differences on policy. This led to the launching in 1951 of her own Mirror , South Asia's first glossy magazine. But the contents of this elitist social register often did not go well with the elite which never missed an opportunity to run it down.

For the paper she worked hard, doing everything herself - from editorial writing to picture editing to proof-reading. Liberal in outlook, she was also the first woman to speak at al-Azhar university. The paper closed down in 1972 after twenty-one years of struggle against authoritarian trends in our politics and bigotry and fanaticism in society, when her husband went on transfer to Ireland. Four years later he died, sapping all her strength. The closure of the paper was, thus, a big loss to Pakistani journalism. The sting in her writings earned her quite a few enemies, but even her detractors admired her for the courage of conviction and the strength of character she displayed throughout her professional and personal life.

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