Ramallah hesitant about peace

Palestinians welcome U.S. effort but wonder how much it can achieve

April 21, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- It was only a small sign of progress, but in a city where not a single traffic light works and where Israeli soldiers stand guard, it was nevertheless a welcome change: Last weekend, a Palestinian construction crew repaved a road.

It was just a road, but it was also a manifestation of the fragile optimism here that the United States is about to begin a new effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But even the most hopeful Palestinians, such as the worker who has rebuilt this road four times in the past year, are unsure what a new push for peace can accomplish.

"Something seems to be changing," said Maher Natsheh, 46, as he shouted instructions to a backhoe operator near the Ayosh Junction, which became notorious as a site of clashes between Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing youths at the start of the Palestinian uprising 30 months ago.

"But we don't really know what is coming," Natsheh said. "Maybe it will help, maybe not. I've fixed this street many times, only to see it ruined again and again by Israeli tanks. We're used to living in this situation, so I keep making repairs and hope they will last. Someday they will, I hope."

`No one is buying'

That ambivalence is widely shared on the crowded streets of Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital. There is neither gloom nor a strong sense that conditions are about to improve.

Of all the major Palestinians cities, this is where optimism should reign. Israeli soldiers rarely venture into the city center, and curfews are no longer imposed. Residents are relatively free to work, shop and attend school.

Over the weekend, streets and sidewalks were crowded with cars and people. Cafes were open, and so were shops selling Italian leather shoes, European perfumes and American jeans. But everyone remains wary, and the tensions are easy to detect.

"People are out, but no one is buying," said Bassam Zaaror, 41, owner of a jewelry shop near Manara Square. He has laid off 15 workers in the past two years. "If they come in, they buy only the most basic piece and the cheapest."

The mood was similar at a toy store across the street. The owner, identifying himself only as Samar, said people were buying essentials such as strollers but nothing more -- no dirt bikes, none of the $40 Cycling Suzy dolls that filled three shelves. "Luxury items are not selling," Samar said. "Whatever peace they are talking about isn't helping me."

There seemed to be little concern or talk about the political wrangling going on nearby at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's presidential compound. Mahmoud Abbas, chosen to become the Palestinian Authority's first prime minister, is struggling to form a Cabinet and formally take office.

Reform-minded legislators have curtailed some of Arafat's powers over finance, and Abbas is attempting to take over Arafat's control of internal security. Over the weekend, Abbas and Arafat continued to quarrel about the makeup of the Cabinet.

American and European diplomats have urged Arafat's advisers to compromise in favor of Abbas, and compromise will prompt the Bush administration to release a peace plan known as the "road map," a program requiring Palestinians and Israelis to make significant concessions.

Israeli concessions

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated that he will agree to a partial troop withdrawal and has said he would meet with Abbas as soon as a Palestinian government is formed.

Israeli army officials said they would not ease up until Abbas demonstrates a serious effort to curtail violence. Yesterday, soldiers stormed the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip and killed five Palestinians, including at least two civilians. One Israeli soldier also was killed.

In a poll conducted last week by the Palestinian-run Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, about 70 percent of those surveyed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip believed the war in Iraq would harm Palestinian interests. About half said the best way to resolve the conflict is through armed resistance and negotiations.

What is being discussed is for Israeli troops to withdraw from parts of several Palestinian cities in exchange for Palestinian police preventing militant groups from launching attacks. But people in Ramallah see that as only a small step; they want to confront larger, far more difficult issues.

Mohammed Abu Shadi, 53, is a money-changer in Ramallah, and his family left Israel as refugees shortly after it became a state in 1948. He insists that there can be no peace until he is allowed to reclaim his family's land near Jerusalem.

"I am ready to give up the house I have now to return to my old village and my old land, even if it means living under the rule of Israel," Shadi said.

Outside Arafat's compound, a small group of students from Al-Quds Open University stood atop mounds of debris left from previous Israeli assaults and sang songs of victory.

"Yasser Arafat is under a lot of pressure," said Fadi Hamed, 25, the student council leader. "The Americans say they are going to help us, but they will make sure that Israel gets what it wants before anyone else. Nothing will change on the ground."

Meanwhile, Natsheh continued to work on the road, a project paid for by the European Union. White lines were painted for pedestrian crossings, and palm trees were planted in the median. He had done the repairs many times before. "Maybe this time," he said, "will be the last."

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