THE question was asked in a rural Palestinian dialect, not the political and diplomatic terminology of press conferences and negotiations. But merely its asking drew sympathetic applause from 4,000 people packed into Amman's Palace of Culture last weekend for a panel discussion with members of the Palestinian delegation to Madrid."Just tell us what are you exactly doing," demanded an elderly Palestinian woman dressed in a traditional, embroidered dress. "Are you negotiating over the Palestinian land of 1948 ... or just over the territories [occupied] in 1967? Are we refugees [of 1948] condemned to ... suffering?" The woman echoed the concerns of more than 1 million Palestinians, displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 and now scattered in a number of countries, who fear that their desire to return to their homes in what is now the state of Israel will be sacrificed in the peace process. Two weeks after the conclusion of the first round of peace talks, the euphoria that gripped Palestinians over what people here call their "media and moral victory" in Madrid is being replaced by a somber concern about the price of peace. The delegation is not only facing tough questions from Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, where the delegates were drawn from, but also from the Palestinian diaspora. Jordan's 1.7 million Palestinians, for instance, are an important constituency. So even though the Palestinian woman is a familiar figure here - journalists call her "the Fatah lady" for her support of the mainstream element of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) - she didn't get a quick answer.
An ambiguous answer Delegates tried to explain, in diplomatic jargon that the woman appeared not to appreciate, that the Palestinians have to cope with reality by working within United Nations resolutions that call for a land-for-peace trade focusing on the occupied territories. Then delegate and poet Sami Kilani, also speaking in the rural dialect, responded. "Dear Hajeh," he said, using the respectful term for an older woman, the Palestine of 1948 "is on top of the ladder. We are still on the bottom and trying to climb up." It was an ambiguous answer. It could have meant that the negotiators have not given up the claim to the land where Israel was established, or that the Palestinian delegation would just work toward repatriation and compensation in accordance with 1947 UN Resolution 195. But Hamas, the radical fundamentalist movement that has influence in the Israeli-occupied territories, insists on the "liberation of all Palestine" and sees the Madrid conference as a sellout of Palestinian rights. The leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine says the delegation has waived the right of Palestinians of 1948 to return to their Israeli-controlled towns. These accusations are based on the PLO's authorization of Palestinian participation at the peace parley on the basis of UN Resolution 242, which concerns the territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But if the issue of compromising Palestinian claims to pre-1947 Palestinian land is the main question that the delegation, and by extension the PLO, are facing from people outside the territories, they have another equally serious challenge from inside the territories. A young man in his early twenties, apparently a participant in the five-year-old intifadah (uprising), brought this challenge to the same panel discussion. He was carrying an olive branch in one hand while he kept his other hand under his fatigue-style jacket, alarming the security guards in the hall. After organizers made sure he wasn't armed, he was allowed to hand delegation leader Faisal al-Husseini the olive branch.
The stone doesn't drop They then embraced, but the young man's words amounted to a warning. "I was not allowed by the security guards to carry the stone into the hall.... You have our support in your efforts to bring peace ... but we are not dropping the stone," he said to Mr. Husseini. Stones have been the main weapon in the uprising. As Saeb Erekat, a prominent member of the Palestinian team, puts it: "We do not have an absolute mandate. [Our people] are telling us that they shall support us as long as we remain committed to our national rights. If we do not we are damned."