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Hope Flickering for Palestinian Peace-Seekers

Society: Anger fills hearts of moderates who used to build bridges with their Israeli neighbors. Support for the use of violence against the occupation grows.


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The months of violent confrontations in the Mideast have left many moderate Palestinians, key to any renewal of a meaningful peace process, embittered, politically weakened and less willing to compromise.

Palestinians who have met with Israelis for years in grass-roots peace efforts say they cannot do so now, after Israel's West Bank offensive, and with the government's declaration Wednesday that it will recapture Palestinian-held lands and keep them indefinitely.

"I am too angry now, and my heart is too full," said Fadwa abu Laban, 36, a coordinator for Palestinian women's issues in Bethlehem who has taken part in dialogue sessions with Israelis for more than a decade. "I cannot think about contacting people on the other side."

Even those who remain open to meetings with Israelis say it is hard now to express such views in public. Recent polls show Palestinians increasingly supporting violence over talks as the way to end the Israeli occupation and achieve political goals.

"For a time, people like me could sell our views of a peaceful resolution," said Manuel Hassassian, a Bethlehem University political scientist who has met frequently with Israeli officials over the years. "But how can you keep talking about peace when everyone around you is in a mood for war?"

Israel launched the massive sweep through the West Bank in March after a series of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis. The offensive formally ended last month when the army withdrew from Bethlehem, one of six Palestinian cities it had reoccupied. But tensions remain high, with almost daily Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas to hunt for militants.

And on Wednesday, the day after a suicide bomber in Jerusalem killed 19 people besides himself, the Israeli government announced that it will seize Palestinian territory and stay there "as long as terror continues."

For 21 months, since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising, Israelis and Palestinians have fought each other in an all-but-declared war. Palestinian suicide bombers blow themselves up in malls, markets and buses, killing and wounding Israeli civilians. Israel responds with raids into West Bank communities, and Palestinian civilians are injured and killed.

But the toll from the mounting violence now seems likely to reach beyond each society's grief over its latest victims and shock at the scope of the destruction. What is at risk, many say, is the hope of reaching a real peace for the foreseeable future, as moderates on both sides lose faith.

Many Palestinians who believed most strongly in the land-for-peace deals at the heart of the defunct Oslo accords are now the most bitter at their failure. They are disillusioned that the years of negotiations produced neither peace nor an end to the occupation. And they are angry over Israel's reentry into Palestinian-held areas.

Some express a sense of almost personal betrayal.

What "has been destroyed in this [Israeli] campaign is people like me, the Palestinian peace camp," Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Cabinet minister and senior peace negotiator, said. "You can rebuild a school or a water or sewage network. But how do you rebuild hope in the minds of the people?"

A former political science professor who is a member of the Palestinian parliament, Erekat said he is now so associated with the failure of the Oslo talks that "people want me to go home."

He predicted that if the Palestinians were to hold elections now, he would get far fewer votes than the 58% he won in 1996.

"People like me, we're the liberal middle class. Who believes us any more?" Erekat said. Eight years ago, Erekat said, he persuaded his daughter, then 12, to join Seeds of Peace, the program to help children from conflict-ridden regions learn to live together. Now, he sometimes wonders, to what end?

The majority of the West Bank remains under Israeli control, as it has since 1967. Under the Oslo process, Israel transferred authority over the big cities and nearby villages to the Palestinians but kept most of the land, including roads, water sources, Jewish settlements and military bases. After years of incremental progress, Erekat asked, "Am I going to find out that all I've done is reorganize the Israeli occupation?"

The months of renewed fighting have radicalized Palestinian society, with polls showing declining support for the peace process.

In addition, many more Palestinians now say they approve of the use of violence against Israelis, even civilians. In a poll published this month, 68% of those surveyed said they supported suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, up from about 26% three years ago.

"The majority has abandoned the position that negotiations are the most effective means" to end the occupation and achieve Palestinian statehood, political analyst Khalil Shikaki said.

The human bonds built up slowly, painfully, over many years are fraying.

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