After five days of the worst Arab-Israeli violence in half a decade, the underlying source of the Palestinians' frustration is coming into focus: the peace deal that Israelis and Americans have implored them to accept.
The continuing unrest in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, say Palestinian and Israeli analysts, shows that many Palestinians would prefer to live without a deal than live with the one now under discussion.
Israeli right-wing leader Ariel Sharon's visit to Jerusalem's Old City last Thursday did indeed provoke some Palestinians. And as some Israeli observers have said, the visit may well have been a convenient justification for some "controlled violence" that would pressure the Israeli government in the peace talks.
But orchestrated or spontaneous, the fire underneath the riots and shooting battles is a growing frustration with the deal that the peace process has yielded.
Standing in the midst of a tumultuous Gaza City demonstration, a Palestinian psychiatrist and human rights activist named Eyad Serraj speaks loudly into his cellphone to make himself heard. "The people are very frustrated and very angry," he says, "because of disillusionment with the peace process first of all, and the Sharon visit, and the cold-blooded killing of innocent people, especially young people."
As of late yesterday afternoon, 37 people had died in the disturbances that have followed Sharon's visit to the sacred compound that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. Last week one Israeli soldier also was killed in a bomb attack in Gaza, and another died after he was shot by a Palestinian counterpart.
The youngest victim was a toddler killed when her family's car was raked with gunfire near the West Bank village of Qusra, east of Nablus, on Sunday night. The shooting follows that of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durra, whose death in a Palestinian-Israeli firefight in Gaza on Saturday was filmed and broadcast around the world, and may further anger Palestinians already upset about the severity of the Israeli response.
But apart from violence begetting new violence, the driving force behind the conflict is the peace process and how many Palestinians feel it has produced little.
"The fundamental demand of the people was to be respected, and they don't feel respected in the sense that their rights are not being regained," says Dr. Serraj. First among these rights is the "right of return" - the Palestinian demand that they be allowed to return to homes from which they fled or were forced to flee during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948 and 1967.
Israel is willing to acknowledge this right, but only to a limited degree that would vastly disappoint Palestinian expectations. In other areas, according to the popular understanding of the peace deal that was discussed in earnest at Camp David in July and that has been fitfully pursued ever since, Palestinians feel that they are not getting what they should.
Israeli negotiators have apparently discussed returning as much as 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control, reserving the remainder to accommodate Israeli settlements. That is unacceptable to Rima Tarazi, the president of the General Union of Palestinian Women, who says that "with settlements there can be no peace."
And the future of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians want as their capital, is perhaps the core of the issue, at least symbolically. Again, Israelis have indicated a willingness to cede some parts of East Jerusalem and the walled Old City - seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - to the Palestinian authority, but nowhere near all of it.
At best, as US officials have indicated, the city will have to be shared. Fair as that might sound, Palestinians feel they have done their duty by recognizing Israel's right to exist on its 1948 borders - a gesture that effectively signed away their rights to 78 percent of the land they once considered theirs and which Ms. Tarazi labels the "final compromise, the final concession."
Now that they are left with their 22 percent, according to the thinking of many Palestinians, it is time for Israel to return to its 1967 borders, which would mean handing back all of East Jerusalem and the Old City. That would honor UN Security Council resolution 242, which demands Israel's withdrawal from lands seized by force in 1967 and which is the basis for the peace process.
UN Resolution 242
"We are negotiating to implement 242, not negotiating 242," says Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian Authority's minister for Jerusalem affairs.
The peace process has been frustrating in economic terms as well. Although things have begun to improve recently, most Palestinians' ability to make a living wage has declined during the 1990s, mainly as a result of Israeli security measures.
That is one reason why the Palestinian leadership may be stoking the current unrest or doing little to stop it. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his advisers risk alienating their people by stifling the popular anger, and they may well benefit from the discomfort the violence causes the Israelis.
"At least we can say they are not discouraging it," says Sala Abdel Shafi, a Gaza City economist. "The leadership is aware that the people are frustrated. It is a really delicate situation, but I don't think they are really interested in putting an end to it."
But once again, because of the violence, economic activity has all but stopped in Gaza. "The shops are half-closed, there are demonstrations everywhere, the checkpoints are closed so no goods are coming in or going out," says Mr. Abdel Shafi.
Last week he was in Bulgaria, touting the virtues of investing in the emerging state of Palestine. During one of his meetings on Friday, CNN was airing coverage of the riots and demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank. "You can imagine what they are going to think," he says of would-be investors in a Palestinian state.
Mr. Arafat is doubtlessly also aware that the nature of his leadership has also given his people reason to complain. Meir Litvak, an expert on Palestinian politics at Tel Aviv University, says there is no doubt that there is growing discontent among Palestinians over the course of the peace process.
But that is for two reasons, he adds. "One is that they are not satisfied with what Israel is willing to offer, and the other thing is that the Palestinian Authority has been weakened because it is corrupt and inefficient. And its corruption is seen as a reason for its lack of determination vis--vis Israel."
Pictures worth lots of words
It is perhaps for this reason that Palestinians demonstrating in recent days have held aloft both Arafat's picture and portraits of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, leader of the militantly anti-Israeli Hamas movement. Indeed, Hamas officials have sounded elated since the weekend.
And within Israel, the more conservative elements of the political spectrum, those who never expected the peace process to succeed, may also be finding some satisfaction in the turn of events.
As Mr. Litvak somberly notes, "Extremists on both sides can celebrate."
- -Staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this story in Jerusalem.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society