NABLUS, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK. — Nablus, Israeli-occupied West Bank -- A new joke is making the rounds among Palestinians in the occupied territories:
Palestinians at the Middle East peace conference meet the Israeli delegation for the first time and immediately demand a freeze on Jewish settlements. The Israelis reply, "OK, as long as you guys promise to continue the intifada."
Many Palestinians in the occupied territories acknowledge that the intifada, or uprising, has become a liability. They also admit that despite the rules laid down by the United States and Israel, participation in the American-led peace process is the only game in town.
"The intifada has become self-destructive," said Said Kanaan, a prominent shopkeeper in Nablus, an Arab city that considers itself the nerve center of the intifada.
Instead of directing its energies against the Israelis, the intifada in Nablus has turned into an internecine struggle between the Palestine Liberation Organization and supporters of Hamas, the fundamentalist group that opposes the peace process.
Last month, senior leaders from the PLO and Hamas met in Amman, Jordan, and again in Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, to work out a truce for Nablus, which has been the scene of sporadic violence between the two factions.
"We are very much afraid that (Palestinian) participants in the peace conference will be harmed or threatened," Kanaan said. "We are afraid that uncontrolled cadres -- emotional teen-agers who are so charged against the peace conference -- might resort to Kalashnikovs (assault rifles) and Molotov cocktails.
"It is really a pity. We should be struggling against the occupation, but we find we are struggling against the extremists who say we should not go to the peace conference," said Kanaan, a PLO supporter who thinks most residents of the territories favor the peace process.
Maher Masri, a businessman and member of a prominent Nablus family, agrees that "the intifada has run its course."
"The intifada, in the view of the majority of the people, has done what it is supposed to do -- to bring our cause to the international scene. They don't expect it to do more.
"Now we are having a lot of uncertainty among the leadership, and there is a feeling that [the intifada] is hurting us more than the Israelis," said Mr. Masri, whose brother, Taher Masri, is Jordan's prime minister.
Whatever political capital the Palestinians gained through the intifada, they squandered almost overnight when they sided with Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.
The decision cost them the financial support of the gulf states. It also cost tens of thousands of Palestinian guest workers their jobs in the gulf. The economic impact has been devastating in places such as Nablus, where the unemployment rate -- fueled by returnees from the gulf -- is estimated to exceed 25 percent.
"Everybody is impoverished. We are at our weakest point ever," said Mr. Masri, who manages a vegetable oil processing plant, the largest employer in this city of 100,000.
Still, it is hard for Palestinians to let go of the intifada, which erupted in December 1988 and presented the world with the image of stone-throwing Palestinians challenging 24 years of Israeli military occupation.
"If you see the intifada as only stones, yes, it is over. But the intifada has created a new consciousness, and our people are prepared to continue the struggle," said Zahira Kamal, an activist who has been held under house arrest and administrative detention by the Israelis.
She conceded, however, that the public mood now strongly favors the peace conference.
"They want us to go, but they want us to go with dignity," she said.
The notion of dignity and honor lie at the core of the Arab political psyche, much as "saving face" matters in Asian political cultures.
The Palestinians, undoubtedly holding the weakest hand of all the participants in the peace process, feel their dignity has been compromised by the conditions imposed by the Bush administration at Israel's behest -- no public role for the PLO, no representation for Arabs who live in East Jerusalem and no guaranteed freeze on Jewish settlement in the territories.
By delaying a final decision on whether to participate in the peace conference until the last possible moment before Friday's agreement, the Palestinians had hoped to gain a better deal.
U. S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III warned that "the bus is not going to come by again," and advised the Palestinians not to miss it, as they have so regularly in the past. This time, the Palestinians seemed to be listening.
"Probably this is the last chance," said Dr. Nihad Masri, a Nablus pediatrician and another member of the large Masri clan.
"What is being offered is very short of our dreams and aspirations -- it is less than what was offered at Camp David -- but most people believe we have to say yes just to stay in the game." he said.