Palestinian public pushes deal

Militant groups discussed a three-month halt on violence Thursday.

The Palestinians are inching toward a cease-fire that could prove more durable than previous attempts if it leads to an easing of measures Israel has used to punish and prevent Palestinian attacks.

US and Israeli pressure is only one reason why Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has tried so hard in recent months to convince Hamas and other militant groups to lay down their arms.

Another is that Palestinians today are demanding an improvement in their situation more loudly than they are clamoring for attacks against Israel.

"We are looking for someone to ease our suffering," says longtime Palestinian human rights activist Bassam Eid. "And Hamas is just increasing it."

It is now commonplace to hear Palestinians say that nearly three years of intifada, or uprising, against Israel have yielded nothing but Israeli-imposed closures, restrictions, and checkpoints that make day-to-day living nearly intolerable.

Mr. Abbas's strategy, Palestinian analysts say, is to arrange a cease-fire in order to win from Israel an easing of the measures imposed in the name of security. "The priority for me," says Mr. Eid, "is to take off the checkpoints rather than to fix the borders of the Palestinian state."

Unlike previous Palestinians cease-fires - which have been top-down edicts from PA President Yasser Arafat - Abbas is negotiating in earnest with the militants themselves.

But as has been true of several previous attempts to engineer periods of calm, this cease-fire also is likely to be a tenuous one. A Palestinian teenager Thursday killed an Israeli telephone-company worker; other Palestinians fired makeshift rockets and mortars at Israeli communities in and around the Gaza Strip. If Palestinians are indeed ready to cease fire, they are not yet showing it.

Israel has said a Palestinian cease-fire is "of no consequence," since it could serve as a period that would allow militant groups to train and regroup for future attacks. Israeli officials say they will continue the "targeted killing" of Palestinians they believe to be planning attacks against Israel, a policy that may undermine the cease-fire.

Both Israeli and US officials say the PA must actively "disarm and dismantle" groups such as Hamas, which is formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, and Islamic Jihad, and not rest content with promises to abstain from violence.

But Abbas, who is much more of a political insider than a charismatic leader, has said he wants to bring about calm through consensus, rather than risk a tougher approach that could bring the Palestinians to civil war. Hamas's popularity is on a par with that of Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian faction led by Mr. Arafat, and Hamas's fighting strength may equal that of the PA

Abbas's political situation is precarious. Appointed prime minister by Mr. Arafat in April, he may need to shore up his backing before he can attempt to use force to contain the militants. That backing slipped early this month after his appearance at a summit meeting in Jordan with President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, where he referred to Palestinian "terrorism," a word that many Palestinians feel maligns their legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation.

Even so, it is clear that improving the day-to-day conditions of Palestinians will give Abbas a boost.

Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster, detects an increasing desire among Palestinians for a "mutual cessation of violence" and a reassessment of the role of violence in the struggle against Israeli occupation. He also observes a growing willingness for Palestinians to call for immediate political reforms - greater democracy and better governance - rather than accepting the argument that such demands are impractical in the midst of the conflict.

Mr. Shikaki says that Abbas is intent on getting the Israelis to ease their security restrictions - thereby making it easier for Palestinians to do business, attend school, even go to the hospital - in order to win political support. "There is no doubt," says Mr. Shikaki, who directs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, "that these small things can play a pivotal role" in expanding popular support for a US-backed peace plan, called the road map. "People are not going to support the peace process until they see movement," he adds.

Sitting in his air-conditioned, wood-paneled office in Beit Jala, a town next to Bethlehem in the West Bank, businessman Abdallah Hodali pines for a little normalcy. "I want one thing," he pleads. "Make me free. I want to move freely."

Khaled Mahmoud, a security guard at a stone factory in Bethlehem, says that Abbas "should remove all these barriers .... The most important thing to do right now is to reduce the suffering of the people."

Mr. Hodali's business - producing logo-emblazoned T-shirts and other promotional products, mainly for the Israeli market - is down to about a third of what it was three years ago. Israeli-imposed security restrictions have impeded his work and his family life. Visiting a village a few miles outside Beit Jala is now, he says, "a dream."

He, too, has some advice for Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. "All the Palestinians are with Abu Mazen if [he] opens the roads for us and moves the checkpoints back to where they were before the intifada." But Hodali is no fan of the road map, which he says "is killing Palestinian hopes for a real Palestinian state."

But he will settle for some short-term improvements. "If they open the roads they can negotiate for 10 years," Hodali says.

Shikaki isn't convinced that frustration alone is driving the Palestinians to concentrate so intently on wresting some improvements in their situation. The road map, which foresees the creation of a Palestinian state, along with statements to the same effect from Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon, "gives them the political horizon that allows them to focus on their immediate needs."

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