Palestinian Voices of Gloom Get Louder

ABU DIS, Occupied West Bank – Three Israeli soldiers, automatic rifles slung across their shoulders, are questioning a group of Palestinian builders. The top floors being added to the concrete house that lies right alongside Israel’s security wall, which divides off occupied East Jerusalem from Palestinian territory on the eastern side, have evidently aroused some concern.

Perhaps, when complete, the added floors will provide a good vantage point against Israeli police and army patrols on "their" side of the formidable concrete barrier.

But the Israeli soldiers seem satisfied that there’s no nefarious intention; they head off westward in their jeeps.

Abu Dis used to be part and parcel of East Jerusalem.

With their wall, the Israelis have tried to create another fait accompli: in peace talks prior to the Palestinian Intifada uprising, they tried to designate Abu Dis as the capital of the future Palestinian state.

According to this Israeli rationale, that would limit the Palestinians to a distant view of the Old City and its holy mosques but would still enable them to say that their capital was located in al-Quds (the Palestinian name for Jerusalem).

Across the road to the building site, in the small conference hall of al-Quds University, an academic conference designed to help the Palestinian political leadership map out its future strategy in response to U.S. pressure to begin talks on a two-state solution is getting under way.

The U.S. has made plain that the future of East Jerusalem must be an integral part of those talks.

The conference has an unusual title: "Palestinian Future Under Continuing Occupation and the Fading Realization of a State." It seems to imply, IPS puts it to conference participants, that, perhaps, Palestinians have already despaired of their state ever becoming a reality.

Dr. Khalil Shikaki is a top independent political analyst. His Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is considered the most reliable polling organization in Palestine.

Khalil Shikaki: "The conference title certainly reflects a perception among Palestinians. For years, the majority of Palestinians don’t believe that they will have a state in the coming five years – the number, in fact, according to our latest polls, is 69 percent. There is very little confidence among Palestinians that diplomacy alone will be able to deliver a state."

IPS: "Is that the reality?"

Shikaki: "Everything depends on what the Obama administration plans to do. There is no doubt that Israelis and Palestinians alone will be unable to deliver a Palestinian state."

The talk around the conference is all about the U.S. pressure on the Palestinians and the Muslim world to shelve discussion for six months at the UN Human Rights Council of the damning Goldstone report about suspected Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Many Palestinians are up in arms that the Palestinian Authority has surrendered the moral ground.

Shock and dismay is the mood in respect to the latest twists and turns of the Obama administration.

One representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a rival faction to Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian government, condemned the decision to drop the draft resolution as an act of "capitulation to Israeli dictates."

Majida al-Masri, a minister in the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says the PA position at the UN had harmed national interests and embarrassed Palestine’s allies. Al-Masri, the social affairs minister, said the delay "gives Israeli war criminals the opportunity to avoid the report’s repercussions." She added that the long postponement is "angering friends and allies of the Palestinian people."

Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former PA minister and negotiator, is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal.

Ziad Abu Zayyad: "We must develop a parallel track to negotiations. This should involve the galvanizing of all the growing international support for our positions – political and moral.

"I’m not talking about another Intifada but about a different kind of resistance – encouraging our friends in the world, and everyone who sees the injustice of the continuing Israeli occupation, to delegitimize it by, for instance, boycotting anything Israeli which is linked in any way to the occupation. There are signs that this is beginning to happen."

The snowball of criticism about the PA decision to go along with shelving of the Goldstone report continued when minister of national economy Bassem Khoury resigned Saturday.

Shikaki: "Obama seemed to be going in the right direction. But there has certainly been a change in tone in Washington during recent days, and it’s not something that gives comfort to the Palestinians.

"If Palestinians are not convinced that Obama is going to carry through his determined declaration that there must a state soon, there is certainly a considerable degree of confusion over what Palestinian strategy should be."

Ali Abu Shahla is secretary-general of the Palestinian Businessmen’s Association in Gaza and a member of the Palestinian Center of Democracy and Community Development.

Abu Shahla: "Obama retreated from his promise of get a settlement freeze. We are very disappointed. He buckled to the pressure of Israel and to the Jewish lobby in America. We do not despair yet, but he gives me little confidence that he will be able to execute what he says he wants to do. It was a big mistake to attend the summit in Washington. All what happened is that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu could say it was a success, and that made the Palestinian leadership even weaker."

Shikaki: "Palestinians definitely need to find a way to negotiations but the leadership has also to keep an eye from the domestic challenge from Hamas. A return to talks without a settlement freeze would weaken this leadership considerably vis-à-vis Hamas.

"Palestinians are still not convinced that Obama is the real thing. They need to hear from him clearer positions on the border and on the future of East Jerusalem, that they will be properly addressed in the negotiations. If that were to happen, the leadership would be in a much better position vis-à-vis its domestic opponents.

"Obama needs to show the Palestinians they can have confidence in him by presenting much more detailed positions on where he expects the talks to go, and a clearer American vision of where the borders ought to be. He had the opportunity at the UN to be more forthcoming on this, and he didn’t take it."

Ziad Abu Zayyad: "There is no way the PA cannot accept an American offer to get involved in serious peace talks. But there is also no way that the PA can convince the people that this is the right thing to do if it too does not adopt clear-cut positions on what they mean to get in peace talks. They have to be transparent about their intentions. Otherwise they will be enabling Hamas to delegitimize the PA even more."

That question of the troubled relations between Hamas and the Fatah-led PA is the top priority for the Palestinian public, says Shikaki.

Shikaki: "According to all our latest polls, more than 50 percent of Palestinians say national unity is the number-one issue for them – even more than occupation."

Abu Shahla: "I don’t believe that Hamas really wants a unity deal. Their main purpose is to impress the population during the coming nine months before we have a new election. They really need to do that, because they have failed to rule properly, and people who are not Hamas but who voted for them to punish Fatah, have punished themselves, and they will not do so again.

"Still, Hamas will go for a prisoners’ exchange with Israel. That could lead to the opening of the border crossings; we would be rebuilding Gaza, which the Israeli army destroyed, and that will count as a success for Hamas.

"Without a major change, people are living in a desperate – you could even say an explosive – situation. They could do anything. I’m not talking about a third Intifada, but if this goes on, it is the time for desperate people. If the world doesn’t listen, it could be too late."

A direct No. 63 bus ride from the university into the center of East Jerusalem used to take barely 15 minutes. Now, with the Israeli wall, Palestinians allowed to enter East Jerusalem need to double back several kilometers eastward passing the major settlement town of Ma’ale Adumim.

All traffic still needs to pass through one of the major Israeli checkpoints leading into the city.

The prolonged journey provides an opportunity to learn whether Khalil Shikaki’s "69 percent" who believe there’s no hope of a Palestinian state "within five years" is a view held by most of the students heading home.

Isat, a fourth-year chemical engineering student, reflects just how deep is the gloom: "Five years" he chuckles with a wry smile, "come back in 400 years; we still won’t have our state – the Israelis will never allow it."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.