AS United States Secretary of State James Baker III arrives in Israel today, Palestinian leaders are looking with cautious optimism to the results of his visit to the region. While in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Baker said he had not specifically requested a meeting with Palestinian figures, but ``if they want to meet with us, we are prepared to meet with them.''
Faisal Husseini, a leading pro-Palestine Liberation Organization activist who has been authorized by the PLO to meet with Baker, says he feels encouraged by recent US statements, including President Bush's references to UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of ``territory for peace,'' made during his speech to Congress last week.
Mr. Husseini says he was particularly struck by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater's remark that ``geography alone cannot guarantee security.''
``I believe this is a very important point,'' Husseini says. ``If it is a sort of message to the Israelis, meaning don't think about annexing lands, don't think about building your security on more military force, but try to adopt international legitimacy, withdraw from the occupied territories ... if this was the message, then I can say it was a hopeful thing.''
Husseini says he reserves judgment on US efforts to resolve the problems of the region, particularly whether Mr. Bush pursues UN resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict with the same vigor displayed over Kuwait. ``It depends on how the US will act,'' he says. ``If they will act with one standard, I believe all the small people in this world will gain, including Palestinians. But if there are double standards, then the new world order will not work.''
[In an interview Saturday, President Bush said he was ``not in any rush'' to restart direct talks with the PLO, who he said had lost credibility for its support for Saddam Hussein.]
Whether Palestinians gain or not, gestures of defiant support for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein still abound in West Bank villages despite the spectacular coalition victory in the Gulf. Palestinian and Iraqi flags flutter side by side over the main street of Deir Ammar, and to the young, resentful men of this West Bank village, Saddam is far from vanquished.
``People don't believe that Iraq was defeated,'' says a youth reluctant to give his name. ``They were steadfast for 45 days. People think that Iraq won.''
For the Palestinians, Saddam achieved another important goal. ``Israel gave its people the impression that nobody can hit Israel. That has been broken - Iraq hit Israel, in its own back yard.''
With Saddam still in possession of a good part of his armed forces, following what many here see as a strategic withdrawal, not an unseemly rout, some Palestinians are looking to the future. ``Next time, he will win,'' says Ibrahim, an engineer.
In the meantime, measures imposed during the seven weeks of curfew - including restrictions on travel within the Israeli-occupied territories - are contributing to an economic recession some have called catastrophic.
``The Israeli authorities are prepared to destroy the economic and social infrastructure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip,'' says Donald Mansir, spokesman for a committee of foreign relief and development organizations monitoring the curfew.
The curfew is just one of the prices Palestinians paid for support of Saddam. For many of the 370,000 others who lived and worked in Kuwait before Iraq's invasion, the crisis has meant financial ruin. ``I left everything,'' says Muhammad, a civil engineer who returned to the desperately overcrowded Gaza Strip in September when his Kuwaiti employers fled the country.
Muhammad lost some $30,000 in pensions, in addition to his $50,000 a year salary. He doesn't know when, or even if, he will be able to return to claim his money.
Samir Huleileh, an economist, says Palestinians have lost $11 billion in Kuwaiti bank savings alone. Since Kuwaiti law demands that all property rights be in the name of Kuwaiti nationals, retrieving houses and land will depend on individuals' goodwill.
No-one knows exactly how many Palestinians have returned to the occupied lands, but preliminary estimates suggest it might be as many as 20,000. The result will be to hasten the decline of an economy where unemployment is already running at between 30 and 50 percent.
Against this gloomy backdrop, faith in American intentions runs low in Deir Ammar.
``We have no trust in the Americans or the West,'' says an older man. ``We have tried them in the past and they have always failed us. We are with anyone who supports the Palestinian cause.''