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THE PALESTINIANS : FAREWELL TO A PEACEMAKER : New Fears for Future Pervade the West Bank

November 07, 1995|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — Not too long ago, Israeli troops under Yitzhak Rabin's command regularly chased stone-throwing Palestinians up and down the steep, narrow streets leading to Manger Square. Tear gas choked merchants. Protesters were beaten and sometimes killed.

But the only sounds here Monday came from the soft shuffle of pedestrians and the radios tuned in to Rabin's funeral. Just weeks away from promised self-rule, Palestinians in this West Bank city were neither mourning nor rejoicing the assassination of Israel's prime minister by a fellow Jew. Rather, they were wrestling anew with fears for their future.

"We're sorry for his death because it's going to create a vacuum," said Elias Freij, the mayor of Bethlehem for the past 25 years and a key figure in the Palestinian Authority. "I'm afraid it will encourage fanaticism on both sides."

As he spoke in his office above Manger Square, the sound of a siren calling for two minutes of silence in Rabin's honor drifted in through the open window.

"Everyone here is saying how regretful they are. But when everything settles down, I sincerely doubt whether it will change the mentality of the Jewish settlers who surround us," Freij said. "Politically, there will be no progress. A man's life has been lost for nothing."

While world leaders gathered to bury Rabin and reiterate their commitment to the peace process that he and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat began, the potential beneficiaries of that peace--living in the West Bank towns occupied by Israel--remained mostly silent Monday, mere observers in the latest tragedy offered up by the tortured Middle East.

Palestinian leaders attending the funeral expressed more hope than confidence that the peace process will continue apace.

Will Rabin's death, Palestinian officials asked privately, damage the credibility of the Israeli right wing and spur the peace process under Rabin's successors? Or was Rabin the only Israeli figure with the clout and military credentials necessary to keep the peace together?

For now, some Palestinian analysts say, the best strategy is to wait. Quietly.

"This peace process has us stuck halfway down a well, neither able to reach the water nor able to climb out and see the sun," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a professor at the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

"That's why we cannot interfere for the time being in Israeli internal politics," he said. "All we can do is maintain our own consensus, control violence and encourage Israelis to withdraw their troops and allow elections."

Certainly, the specter of Jew killing Jew over attempts to make peace with Arabs has been particularly disquieting for Palestinian leaders as well as for citizens of the budding state.

"This is the first time in Israel that they have killed each other," said Ramzi Nassar, a 24-year-old store clerk here, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's really hard to digest it, you know. Here was a man who spent most of his life trying to kill us, and we really hated him. And just when we started to like him, he gets killed."

"We're not grieving, but we're shocked," added his friend Assam Barakat, 26.

The Israeli pullout from Bethlehem, perched on a rocky hilltop five miles south of Jerusalem, was supposed to begin next month and be completed by Dec. 21. The Israelis had originally wanted to pull out Dec. 24, a night that is always marked here by a parade watched by thousands of Christian pilgrims. But Arafat, in a personal appeal to Rabin, had managed to move up the date of the hand-over.

Now, though, everything is in flux. Troop redeployment, as the accords call it, has been suspended this week in the wake of Rabin's assassination. Implementation of the peace accords will resume, Israeli officials say. But when, Bethlehem residents ask, and with how much energy?

Palestinians here would like to believe that the timetable is intact, although the death of Rabin, a man Mayor Freij calls "a great leader," gives them pause.

"We don't know how things will work now--really, we just don't know," Freij said. "Even though I respect [acting Prime Minister] Shimon Peres, I worry that the military might become more aggressive and try to change the peace agreements. That would cause complications and delays."

Kostandi Jabrieh, 49, who sells sewing materials near the square, said he believes that while there may be postponements, the accord will be implemented. But, he added: "We only hope it. We're still afraid the process will get ruined. Only if there is security and peace will there be business for people like me."

Still, rehearsals for the annual Christmas Eve parade are already under way. The mayor still hopes to turn it into a large celebration of self-rule, with an appearance by Arafat. The parade, which usually draws 5,000 to 10,000 people, could draw 10 times that many this year, Freij said.

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