JERUSALEM — For decades, Palestinian intellectuals have gathered in the gardens of East Jerusalem's venerable American Colony Hotel, sharing their dreams of Palestinian statehood over cups of Arabic coffee and mint tea. But now, with the birth of the state seemingly at hand, they come here not to rejoice but to grieve.
Beneath swaying palms on a balmy summer's night, Charles and Maha Shamas tried to explain the disillusionment that they and others feel. Five years ago, the Shamases said, Palestinians were eager just to achieve the trappings of statehood: to fly their flag, sing their national anthem and carry their passport. Today, even as they assume that the state will be declared, they find themselves alienated from what was once a cherished goal.
"We are so sick of these symbols of statehood," said Maha Shamas, who directs a legal aid program for women in the West Bank. "People are more concerned about the issue of Jerusalem, the ability to move freely, about the fate of the refugees. We want to know whether we will have the institutional means to protect our rights--that means more than having a state."
At a critical moment in their history, Palestinians say, many activists have chosen to divorce themselves from the process of nation-building. These are some of the same leaders who for decades helped shaped the ideology of the nationalist movement, or who played key roles in the intifada, or uprising, against Israel's rule in the territories. They are the educated elite who thought that they were struggling to create the Arab world's first truly democratic state, one that might even have separated mosque from state.
Now, "we worry that the end of the scenario is setting us up for a police state," said Charles Shamas, a business consultant who has worked with the Palestinian Authority on trade issues.
Some intellectuals, he said, fear that Israel's intention is to allow the birth only of a truncated, anti-democratic state that will remove the Palestinian issue from the international agenda but leave Palestinians with an economically, politically and socially dysfunctional nation.
"There is a pervasive sense of disappointment after all our struggle," agreed Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, a former minister in the Palestinian Authority who has criticized its record on human rights. "We did not fight to establish a state that does not respect the rule of law. There is a massive sense of letdown."
So deep is the disillusionment, Mikhail-Ashrawi said, that some of her friends are fleeing. "I know very skilled, honest people who wanted to be here and who have left. It saddens me," she said. "These are people who survived the occupation, and they shouldn't be made to leave by the Palestinian Authority. Most frightening is the fact that there are many in the younger generation who have left and don't want to come back."
The Palestinian Authority has made mistakes that have alienated some of the society's best and brightest, Mikhail-Ashrawi said. "When the leadership came back from [Tunisia], we thought they would change their mentality. Instead, many of the patterns they had when they were outside have been superimposed on nation-building." But she has urged her friends not to give up.
"Part of the blame lies with the leftist opposition," she said. "We haven't consolidated or coordinated our efforts. I tell them not to just criticize but to come up with an alternative. It depends on us. If we sit back and say that it is all hopeless and all bad, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
The Shamases said they sometimes speak of returning to the United States--both are U.S. citizens--when things get bad.
"When you feel frustrated at people's inability to see beyond the immediate, you say: What am I doing here?" Maha Shamas said.
People fret about more than politics, she said. They worry about the quality of life. An upsurge in random violence "has opened the sore subject of people simply wanting to desert," she said.
During the intifada, she said, Palestinian activists believed that they were laying the groundwork for a different kind of civil society, one that could break free of traditional tribal patterns and embrace modernization. But the Palestine Liberation Organization's return to the territories, after years of exile in Arab countries, brought a resurgence of the traditional elite.
"The election of the first Palestinian Legislative Council brought out all the old values, the emphasis on family, clan and village. Maybe we had unrealistic expectations," she said. "On what basis did we believe that Palestinian society would perform better than others?"
Where once she dreamed of establishing secular family law to replace the Islamic law that governs marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance matters in the territories, Maha Shamas said, now she hopes "to get a progressive interpretation of Islamic law" on the books once the state is declared.
"Just today," she said, "I was arguing with my colleagues about this in the office." Many wanted to abandon the effort of reforming family law, citing overwhelming opposition. "I say that we have to keep pushing. We have to keep these social issues on the political agenda."