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Shopkeepers enlisted in West Bank struggle

Reviving business is key to a Palestinian shift to nonviolent resistance.

August 01, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

HEBRON, WEST BANK — For 13 years, Hebron's Old City has been so carved up by fences, concrete barriers and Israeli army checkpoints that most of its shops have closed. Starting today, the new Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is waging a campaign to get them reopened.

The initiative is part of a government program favoring nonviolent strategies against the Israeli occupation, a policy shift that has provoked fierce debate among Palestinians over how to achieve statehood.

Under the slogan "This City Is Yours," the government is promising $200 a month for six months to any Old City merchant willing to navigate the maze of security obstacles, reopen his shop and keep it open, in the hope that customers will follow and help revive a historic district that now resembles a ghost town.

When Palestinians speak of standing up to Israel, they generally use the word mukawamah, or resistance. In Arabic, this is understood to mean armed opposition, which most Palestinians regard as a legitimate right in confronting Israel's occupation of land they want for their state.

But for the first time since Palestinians began voting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1996, they have a government whose official program does not endorse or even mention resistance -- a pointed omission aimed at advancing negotiations with Israel.

Instead, the agenda unveiled last week by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad highlights the word "steadfastness."

It promises to work for a healthy economy, strong public institutions and a just legal order to "reinforce the steadfastness of the Palestinian citizens on their land" while their leaders try to liberate it through peace talks.

The $2-million campaign to revitalize Hebron's Old City, one of the first special expenditures approved by Fayyad's government, is widely touted by his aides as a prototype of this approach.

"Steadfastness is a form of resistance," said Riyad Maliki, Fayyad's minister of information. "When kids go to school despite the roadblocks, that's resistance. When people brave the soldiers to open their shops, that's resistance: peaceful, civic resistance."

"We have opted to take that path: resistance with results," he added. "We believe that approach can deliver the end of occupation."

The United States, other Western countries and Israel have welcomed the rhetorical retreat from violence. It is expected to help Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is now in the region, to press for a resumption of the full-scale peace talks that Israel and the Palestinians broke off seven years ago.

Most Palestinian militant groups have branded Fayyad a traitor. The Popular Resistance Committees have threatened to kill him. In a joint statement, Hamas and Islamic Jihad accused the Texas-trained banker of renouncing "the mother of all principles of the Palestinian people" in exchange for renewed Western aid.

Nonviolent protest is not a deeply rooted tradition in the modern Middle East. Peaceful resistance was effective early in the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s but gave way to rock throwing and then armed struggle.

Today 57% of Palestinians believe violence can play a role in ending Israeli occupation, and just under half of those polled think violence has proved more effective than negotiations so far, according to a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Fayyad's program is the antithesis of the one promoted in the Gaza Strip by his rivals in Hamas.

The Islamic movement, whose doctrine calls for Israel's destruction, led the Palestinian Authority's elected government for 15 months and was shunned by the West and Israel. In mid-June, Hamas' violent ouster of the rival Fatah movement's security forces from Gaza split the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the secular Fatah movement, fired the Hamas-led government and named Fayyad, who has no political affiliation, to lead a new Cabinet. The reach of their government is limited to the West Bank; Hamas remains in control of Gaza.

The split has left Gaza isolated, its cross-border commerce choked off by Israel. And it has weakened the authority of Abbas and Fayyad, whose West Bank-based government has regained Western financing but cannot win approval from the Hamas-led parliament, and has governed by decree.

But the divide has improved the climate for peace talks involving the West Bank, giving Fayyad's nonviolent approach a chance to bear fruit, according to cautious assessments on both sides.

Israel last month freed 255 West Bank terrorist suspects who are not Hamas members and took 178 others off its wanted list for a three-month trial amnesty. In return, the militants pledged to cease armed activity against the Jewish state.

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