Palestinians' Hopes Dwindle As Peace Looks Elusive as Ever

Tougher Israeli practices and lack of results from talks deepen pessimism

SUFFERING the same hardships of occupation as ever, and frustrated by their leaders' failure to achieve results after four rounds of negotiations with Israel, Palestinians in the occupied territories are losing most of their faith in the peace process.

This is the unanimous conclusion of Palestinian negotiators themselves, local political analysts, and Western diplomats, six months after the Madrid conference launched the first-ever peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinian youths celebrated that meeting by offering olive branches to Israeli soldiers in this West Bank town 15 miles north of Jerusalem. Today, they are throwing rocks again.

"After Madrid there was a euphoria that something would happen quickly," says Palestinian negotiator Ghassan Khatib. "We wanted that mood to calm down, for people not to be overoptimistic. But now they are pessimistic."

The sharp shift in public opinion has prompted some prominent personalities to wonder how long the Palestinians can keep coming to the table without winning any tangible results with which to persuade their followers that the inevitable concessions of negotiations are worth making.

"We will be faced with a critical question at a certain point, when people say they cannot go on paying the price," warns delegation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi. "We can sustain for so long, but when you lose your base you have nowhere to stand."

Judgments vary as to when the Palestinians might reach that point, and about the exact degree of support the peace process still enjoys among the grass roots.

Mr. Khatib, for example, believes that most people "are still convinced that we should continue with negotiations," even if, he concedes, "a major reason is that we don't have any other alternatives."

An even bleaker picture emerges from a recent opinion poll by a Palestinian team, which remains unpublished for political reasons, Palestinian sources say.

Based on answers from 1,000 respondents around the territories, the poll found that support for the peace process fell from more than 70 percent at the time of the Madrid talks to less than 25 percent after January's talks in Moscow on multilateral regional issues. Approval of the delegation's performance slumped just as precipitously, from 80 percent to 30 percent.

Palestinian leaders blame Israeli occupation practices for the deepening mood of cynicism about the talks. Ramallah, for example, normally a bustling commercial town, was under full military curfew for 24 days during the three months that followed the Madrid talks, and under night curfew for an additional six weeks.

Jewish settlements in the occupied territories are growing at the same record pace established last year, the Israeli authorities continue to confiscate Palestinian land, 46 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli troops in the past six months, and 11 face deportation.

"Instead of the peace process enhancing the human rights situation, it has led to a deterioration," complains Hanna Siniora, editor of the Jerusalem daily Al Fajr.

And while Palestinian negotiators feel they have been successful at the international level in winning understanding for their case, this has not translated into any changes on the ground in the occupied territories. No real change achieved

"We are accomplishing long-term political and public relations achievements, but in terms of real change it looks as if we are not accomplishing much," Ms. Ashrawi says. "People measure by the price they are made to pay."

Some critics of the Palestinian leadership blame the negotiators themselves for the lack of popular enthusiasm for the peace process. "People have withdrawn themselves from the process, because they felt they were not important to it, and were not being consulted," argues Palestinian political scientist Zakaria al-Qaq.

Left-wing groups opposed to the talks, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), have not been able to capitalize on the skepticism, however.

"There is no other serious, capable program that they can offer the people," explains prominent Palestinian journalist Radwan Abu Ayyash.

The fundamentalist Islamic opposition to the peace talks, on the other hand, embodied in the Hamas movement, is making gains at the expense of the PLO throughout the territories, local political sources say. Fundamentalists sweep elections

Hamas swept the recent elections to Ramallah's Chamber of Commerce, previously dominated by PLO-associated figures, and gunfights between Hamas militants and PLO activists are increasingly common.

"Each time Israel escalates its measures, and ... the Palestinians come back from negotiations without any results, Hamas gains more ground," Dr. al-Qaq says.

Even those Palestinians who continue to support the talks have lowered their expectations. And many in the political leadership are worried that such passive backing can easily be eroded by events.

"If the peace process can produce any concrete changes to alleviate people's suffering, that would give us a real push," Ashrawi says. "But instead the Israelis are escalating the pressure. That condenses our time frame."

Khatib believes that so long as Washington shows it is willing to pressure Israel over issues such as settlements, "this is an incentive to people to go on with the negotiations. Because if we break off the talks, we lose that pressure." But he fears that if after June's Israeli elections "we don't feel a significant change in the Israeli attitude ... we might reach a day when our people ask us not to go to further negotiations."

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