Palestinians have firm goal, fuzzy plan

As Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound remains under siege, Palestinians are becoming more determined to end Israel's 35-year occupation.

Israel's three-week invasion of much of the West Bank has done little to dampen Palestinians' political ambitions, according to Palestinian analysts and a senior adviser to Yasser Arafat.

As Palestinians attempt to resume daily life – schools are reopening, and police are beginning to patrol city streets for the first time in nearly a month – they remain focused on ending Israel's 35-year occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"Now it's clear," says Arafat aide Mohammed Rashid. "Everyone is saying that there is no military solution, and we should have a serious political solution. And what is that? A Palestinian state."

Even so, there are new questions to answer.

Searching for a formula

With Arafat still under Israeli siege in his Ramallah headquarters, many people are left to wonder what is happening at the highest levels of the Palestinian leadership.

Militant groups may be debating their tactics, such as the use of suicide bombers, but with some militants in Israeli detention and others underground, it is impossible to determine whether they will shift gears or not.

And as diplomats and officials search for a new and improved way to mediate the Middle East's most intractable conflict, Palestinians are asking whether a formula even exists that will bring the two sides back to the negotiating table.

In launching operation "Defensive Shield" on March 29, Israeli officials said they would attack the "infrastructure of terror" by arresting or killing Palestinian militants and seizing their weapons. But Palestinians noted that the Israelis seemed intent on destroying many other types of infrastructure – everything from water pipes to police cars to statistical databases – leading to the conclusion that Israel's goal was to break or at least beat back the Palestinians' desire to fight.

If that surmise is correct, the goal seems not to have been met. "I doubt if it has changed – the attitude of the people," says Palestinian legislator Abdul Jawad Saleh, who lives in the town of El-Bireh next to Ramallah. "They were dealt different blows – economic, moral, dignity-wise, or whatever – but I think their determination has accelerated that there is no way to coexist with the occupation."

"The thinking of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority has not been changed [by the] impact of the [Israeli] incursions," insists Mr. Rashid, who is not in Arafat's compound, but who has seen the Palestinian Authority president seven times since Israel's offensive began.

'A kind of frustration'

Other Palestinians do not have as clear a sense of the thinking of Arafat and his circle of advisers. Partly because he has been largely cut off from the media and from interacting with all but a few visitors, Arafat's capacity to lead has been curtailed.

"There is a kind of frustration," says Manuel Hassassian, a political scientist at Bethlehem University. "Where do we go from here? There is no clear strategy."

Diplomats from the US and Europe are still working to achieve an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian-ruled areas, a cease-fire, and some way to return to negotiations. But there is deep skepticism among Palestinians that any formula acceptable to one side will win the approval of the other.

The only idea on the table for a resumption of talks is to convene a regional or international conference, one that even US officials concede would have to be organized around the idea of ending Israel's occupation and estab- lishing a Palestinian state.

But there is little likelihood that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would agree to a conference under such terms. He has said he would consider attending a regional conference, but rules out negotiating with Arafat. "What Sharon wants," says Mr. Saleh, "is to stall, postpone, and delay what Israel has to pay."

It's also unclear how Palestinian militants will react to Israel's offensive. There is almost a general consensus among Palestinians that the militants are regrouping in preparation for continued attacks – something most Palestinians will accept as long as Israeli forces have not withdrawn and as long as there is no tangible sign of a political resolution to the conflict.

Palestinians from top to bottom, says Mouin Rabbani, director of the Palestinian-American Research Center in Ramallah, "are not willing to accept anything less than a road map to the end of occupation."

Without such a road map, violence is likely to find favor. "As far as Palestinians are concerned," Dr. Hassassian says, "we are still in a state of war with Israel."

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