WEST Bank Palestinians are pessimistic about the possibility of a breakthrough in peace talks with Israel, and the gloomy mood has been reflected in a stepped-up level of demonstrations, clashes with soldiers, and a hunger strike by security prisoners.
The nine-day hunger strike by several thousand prisoners demanding better living conditions has touched off a series of mass marches reminiscent of the earlier days of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) that began almost five years ago.
On Sunday, Faisal al-Husseini, who heads the Palestinian negotiating team in the Middle East peace talks, lent his prestige to the hunger strike, leading 150 protesters into a brief confrontation with police near the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City.
Larger, more violent clashes between hunger-strike supporters and soldiers have occurred in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus during the past week. Recent Israeli moves
As Palestinians see it, recent gestures toward them by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have been aimed more at Western public opinion than at improving conditions in the occupied territories. The Israeli moves have included a partial freeze on construction of West Bank settlements and the release of 800 Palestinian prisoners.
But in two rounds of negotiations held since late August, the Palestinian peace team rejected Israeli offers to start negotiating the mechanics of self-government in the territories - insisting that Israel first recognize certain underlying principles. They include demands for an Israeli statement recognizing that United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for exchanging territory for peace, applies to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Under orders from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and grassroots pressure, Palestinian negotiators are expected to maintain their tough stance in Washington when peace negotiations resume this month.
But Palestinian leaders say that meaningful Israeli gestures to improve conditions in the territories would help prepare public opinion at home for more pragmatic talks.
"We are being held to account by our constituencies," says Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian negotiator. "We have to report to our leadership and also report to the opposition, and to the masses in villages, towns, and refugee camps. People want to see that Israel is serious about the peace process.
"What's happening to the prisoners is a classical case of what we mean when we say that the Israelis must create an atmosphere of confidence-building," Mr. Erakat adds. "What are the demands of the prisoners - an extra bar of soap, an extra magazine, an extra doctor? The families of the prisoners say to me, `If these people won't give you an extra bar of soap, do you think they will make peace?' "
Prime Minister Rabin has complained that the Palestinians, by focusing on human rights issues, are "dealing with the symptoms of the disease and not the disease itself."
Israeli officials also believe that the Palestinians are seeking to paper over disputes between West Bank negotiators and the PLO leadership in Tunis over how quickly to proceed in autonomy negotiations.
Some West Bank Palestinians, however, suggest that the prisoner strike is largely the work of opponents of the peace process seeking to drag the peace delegation into continued confrontation with Israel.
"I think the strike is mainly the work of left-wing PLO groups," says one West Bank journalist. "They're trying to corner the peace delegation. Marching to Damascus Gate is not something Husseini wants to do, but he has no choice."
Still, the strike also expresses the broader popular frustration with the cycle of Palestinian-Army clashes, arrests, shootings, and deaths that has continued since Rabin took office in July. An unwelcome delegate
Jad Isaac, a Palestinian delegate to the multilateral peace talks from the Bethlehem area, described the high emotions he encountered in a recent visit to a neighboring family whose 18-year-old son was killed by Israeli soldiers on Sept. 26, in a chase after a small group of stone-throwing youths.
"I used to go to these condolence calls and be welcomed," said the delegate. "This time, I've never felt so embarrassed."
"The family said, `You welcomed the changes in the Israeli government. But the death squads are proceeding and inmates continue to die at the hands of their interrogators. So why are you continuing the peace process? What have you achieved in these past few months?' "
Against that background, deep disagreements exist among West Bank Palestinians over the value of continuing the peace talks - a question that is increasingly being aired in the open.
In a Jewish-Arab political dialogue in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour last week, some Palestinians said that Palestinians should "take what we can get" from the current peace talks, while others said autonomy talks would lead to a dead end.
Most of the Palestinians agreed, however, that the Palestinian delegation should not budge from its "principles" demanding that Israel somehow acknowledge Palestinian aspirations for statehoood before serious autonomy talks begin.
That point of view dismayed left-wing Israelis who argued that pragmatic action, not declarations, will gain the Palestinians a state.
But the Palestinians were not persuaded. "I admire my delegation for standing by their principles, even if they lose. I don't believe the new Israeli government is serious. Rabin has gained world diplomatic recognition, and this is what he wanted. Still I believe we should continue to be at the peace talks," said one Palestinian teacher.