A high, double, barbed-wire fence isolates the refugee camp from the main Hebron road outside Bethlehem, while its 14 entrances are blocked by stacks of cement barrels. The Israeli flag flies over the roof of a building near the main entrance, serving as a constant reminder of the military occupation.
Inside the camp, residents are distressed that, more than three months after the signing of the historic accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), they see no sign of an end to the occupation.
``Nothing has changed. If anything, Israeli soldiers have become more blatant in suppressing the refugees,'' says Hussein Shahin, director of the camp created in 1950 to absorb Palestinians displaced by the establishment of the state of Israel.
``This is a detention camp,'' says Umm Mohammed, a Palestinian woman who volunteered to act as a guide through the camp's narrow, muddy alleys. ``Israeli soldiers roam these alleys at night, terrorizing us. No one leaves the house after nine.''
The euphoria that accompanied the Sept. 13 signing of the Israeli-PLO agreement on Palestinian self-rule has long since dissipated here, as the Dec. 13 date for start of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Jericho and the Gaza Strip passed without even a symbolic act by the Israelis.
The only tangible change in West Bank towns and refugee camps is that PLO-affiliated groups have emerged from the underground and been caught up in a fierce power struggle over who will hold authority under the anticipated, limited Palestinian self-rule.
Fatah - Chairman Yasser Arafat's mainstream PLO faction that negotiated the agreement - has been damaged, activists and analysts say, by the stalemate in the peace talks and by the Tunis-based leadership's insistence on controlling the West Bank and Gaza Strip in what many see as an undemocratic manner.
Fatah still musters the broadest support in Dheisheh and across the occupied territories. A recent opinion poll, conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, showed that Fatah is backed by 40 percent of Palestinians. But many predict that if the stalemate continues and the PLO leadership ignores calls for democratic reforms in its mode of operation, its credibility will be undermined and a political vacuum may emerge.
Poll notes shifts
The poll, released Jan. 15, also revealed that for the first time, a growing number of Palestinians are either unsure of or do not support the current Palestinian groups.
``It is a matter of time before a new government emerges,'' says Salim al-Sayedj, who had to hide for two years in the mountains because of his involvement in the intifadah, Palestinian uprising, against the Israeli occupation.
Extensive interviews with activists in the West Bank indicate that a growing number are leaving the various groups in protest against the way the PLO is handling the peace negotiations or in despair over the current situation.
But activists from all groups concede that the delay in the implementation of the accord is boosting the opposition - in particular, the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement.
In the January poll, 14.2 percent said they supported Hamas, and 7.7 percent backed the PFLP. The leftist opposition, which includes the PFLP and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has forged an alliance with the Islamists to challenge the agreement with Israel and continue the intifadah. The left, however, fearing that Hamas is using the alliance as a vehicle to strike a better bargain for power-sharing with Fatah, if not Israel, is now considering creating a separate program in the hope of filling the political vacuum, should Fatah influence decline.
``There are three major trends, Fatah and its allies, who represent the authority, the fundamentalists, and the democratic [leftist opposition],'' says Hassan Abdul Jawad, a PFLP activist. ``We could be the third force, the alternative. People do not have to be stuck between choosing Fatah and the Islamists,'' he argues.
Other activists and ordinary Palestinians disagree. ``There is a gradual, sharp polarization between Fatah and Hamas. Sooner or later, Palestinians will have to choose between [them], until a totally new movement appears,'' Mr. Sayedj says.
Fatah activists, however, are irritated and even insulted by the growing reference to the movement as a ``ruling party'' or ``oppressive authority.''
``Fatah members are freedom fighters who share people's concerns about the flaws of the Israeli-Palestinian accord,'' says Younis Amouri, of the seven-member Fatah leadership committee in the Jerusalem area.
``We shall never accept that the implementation of the accord will give Palestinian legitimacy to Israeli occupation,'' says Mr. Amouri, who represents the grass-roots activists who are not as involved in the ongoing power struggle over the future authority as the well-known Fatah leaders.
What matters to Palestinians
In Amouri's view, the main task for Fatah is to continue to assert its leadership of the Palestinian movement, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.
But back in the Dheisheh camp, what matters for ordinary Palestinians is a genuine end to the occupation. ``I oppose and shall always oppose an agreement that will not end the occupation. But I also will not agree to be ruled by collaborators, regardless of who they are,'' says Umm Raafat.
And, in the current climate, many Palestinians have begun to use the term collaborators to refer not just to spies or agents for Israel, but to describe any Palestinian, including leaders, who accept Israeli control in any way and suppress Palestinian resistance - as many fear the accord may be leading to.
According to prominent Palestinian leader Abdul Jawat Saleh, who was allowed to come back after 14 years in exile, the Israeli authority is reluctant to take measures that would increase people's faith in the leadership and the peace process.
``Israel is dealing with the PLO as an appointed policeman whose sole mission is confined to ensure Israeli security.... This attitude is aimed at undermining the credibility of the leadership,'' Mr. Saleh says.
For the Dheisheh residents, Saleh's words express their deepest fears and consequent resentment. ``The situation is very vague,'' Mr. Shahin says. ``We have no clear vision of the future. There is real fear of the future here.''