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Post-Pact Euphoria Has Left Jericho : Mideast: Six months after peace accord, residents' optimism is dimmed by mosque massacre and the killings of six more Palestinians.


JERICHO, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Abdel Karim Sidr is a hard man to find these days.

It's better that way, he said.

Sidr is the spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jericho, the sleepy border town on the edge of the West Bank that exploded in euphoria last September when the PLO signed a historic peace declaration with Israel making Jericho the headquarters of a future, autonomous Palestine.

And on Monday, a day when at least six more Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli authorities in the occupied Gaza Strip, the PLO spokesman in Jericho did not have much good to say about his organization.

The slain men were members of the Fatah Hawks, the military wing of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's mainstream PLO.

When the shootout erupted in the Jabaliya refugee camp north of Gaza City, the six were distributing leaflets criticizing the PLO for attempting to return to talks on implementing Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories.

It was the single deadliest incident since a Jewish settler massacred about 30 Palestinians at prayer in a Hebron mosque last month, and it cast further doubt on the struggling Mideast peace effort.

"This is a new massacre," Arafat said in Tunis, Tunisia, where the PLO is headquartered. ". . . We are now facing a secret organization from within the Israeli army and the (Jewish) settlers."

In Jericho, Sidr said the euphoria over the possibility of peace is forgotten. His once-bustling PLO office downtown is closed--padlocked in protest after the massacre at Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs.

And now, Sidr said, even he has given up trying to defend his own leaders, even on the eve of what Israeli and PLO negotiators predicted could be a breakthrough in the peace process.

Most Palestinians agreed with Sidr that there were few signs on the ground in lands occupied for a quarter of a century to justify the official optimism.

"Look, we stopped fighting; we stopped the intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israel). We recognized Israel. And we have gotten nothing," Sidr told two Western journalists who finally tracked him down at the Jericho Chamber of Commerce office, where he had just finished sharing his pessimism with a visiting delegation from Germany.

"The people in the streets ask us: 'What is the benefit of this agreement? What have we gotten? What will we receive in the future?' I just run away. I escape. I have no answers for them."

Israeli and PLO negotiators had hoped to agree in talks scheduled today in Cairo on a compromise that will restart negotiations on implementing the long-delayed autonomy agreement for the first time since the mosque massacre.

After the killings in Jabaliya, Arafat would not say if the PLO would boycott the talks. But he said he was calling an emergency meeting of PLO leaders this morning to decide on a PLO response.

Even among PLO stalwarts, it was clear that popular support for Arafat and his peace efforts was all but dead for the moment, along with the scores of Palestinians who have been killed in the territories since the original peace agreement was signed half a year ago.

"We in Jericho were about 85% supporting that agreement in September," Sidr concluded. "That percentage now is around zero--maybe below zero."

A Palestinian opinion poll released Sunday was a bit more generous. The survey by the Nablus-based Center for Palestinian Research Studies found that the overwhelming majority of the 2 million Palestinians in the territories--86.1%, in fact--have reservations about how the PLO has handled its talks with Israel since the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on unarmed worshipers in Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs on Feb. 25.

Most of the 1,978 Palestinians surveyed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip said they were flatly opposed to the PLO decision to continue negotiating with Israel without immediately resolving the issue of Jewish settlements in Hebron and throughout the occupied territories.

The PLO chairman did insist on just that, when, amid an outpouring of fury across the territories the day of the massacre, Arafat broke off all talks with Israel. The PLO leader insisted he would not return to the bargaining table unless Israel agreed to discuss the future of the settlements along with a host of unresolved logistics disputes concerning implementation of the overall autonomy plan.

But on Monday, after Israel's refusal to negotiate the issue of the 140,000 Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories--at least until the "Gaza-Jericho first" agreement is in place--the settlers issue no longer appeared to be a top priority on the PLO's agenda.

The major outstanding dispute on the table if the Cairo talks take place today seems to be the size, makeup and authority of a lightly armed force of Palestinian police and international observers.

Both sides have agreed it will be posted in Hebron.

Its aim will be to quell the violence between Hebron's more than 120,000 Palestinians and the 415 Jewish settlers who live in the heart of town.

In Cairo, PLO officials were far from optimistic that an agreement will be reached quickly. Progress over the weekend in telephone and fax contacts was slow, they said.

"We will be in a position to ask if they accept (the PLO demands). Otherwise, we're wasting time," said Said Kamel, PLO ambassador to Egypt.

"If they come tomorrow and say, 'We accept the paper you presented,' then there's a chance. Otherwise there's nothing to talk about."

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