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News Analysis: Palestinians Euphoric over Madrid Even Though They Accomplished Little

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Although little substantive progress was made at the peace conference in Madrid, its powerful imagery had an electric effect on Palestinians in Jerusalem and the administered territories.

While Israelis puzzled over the meaning of the historic weekend and were only cautiously hopeful about its consequences, euphoria reigned among the Palestinians.

The contemplative mood in Zion Square, the center of Jewish western Jerusalem, contrasted sharply with the carnival atmosphere on Saladin Street, the main drag of the city’s heavily Arab eastern section.

And in the refugee camps and villages of the West Bank, the hurled rocks of the intifada were replaced by olive branches, the universal symbol of peace.

Waving them in the faces of stunned Israeli soldiers and border police were many of the same youths who only recently were engaged in pitched battles with the same soldiers and police.

They celebrated, despite the fact that the nitty-gritty negotiations have not yet started and despite the fact that the Israelis have not budged from their refusal to yield an inch of territory in exchange for peace.

The Palestinians seem to feel that history turned a corner in Madrid with favorable portents for them. They are celebrating the fact that for the first time in history, Palestinians had a recognized leadership which sat down as equals with ranking Israelis to talk about when and where they will discuss their political future.

In short, the Palestinians already smell independence in the air. And while they have a propensity to read much from very little, the fact is that they have won respectability in the international community, which less than a year ago made them pariahs for supporting Saddam Hussein.

The new atmosphere is making Israeli security forces nervous. There was fear by midweek that the numerous peace demonstrations could get out of hand and become an olive-branch intifada.

Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, said Tuesday, during a tour of Hebron, that the army would not allow “any sort of demonstrations.”

A DROP IN ROCK-THROWING ATTACKS

The chief of staff reported that there has been a drop in the number of stonings in the territories since the Madrid conference, but he said it is too early to tell whether the change is permanent.

“I have no doubt that extremist elements will try to escalate the level of violence,” he said.

In fact, the Palestinian camp is far from united, with many activists still holding to maximalist positions and crying for the continuation of armed struggle.

Just two days before the Madrid conference opened, two Israelis were killed and five wounded in a West Bank bus ambush.

Murders inside the Palestinian community continue, some of them using a nationalist “cover” to cloak criminal intent.

Despite the meeting of Israelis and Palestinians in Madrid, the Palestinian rejectionist camp is vocal and influential, especially the fundamentalist Hamas movement and other radical groups.

Nevertheless, Yasir Arafat’s mainstream bloc in the Palestine Liberation Organization seems to have gained from the Madrid conference, which it supported.

Arafat supporters won substantial victories in the Gaza Strip Chambers of Commerce elections this week.

But the smiles and handshakes that marked the first Israeli-Palestinian bilateral talks in Madrid on Sunday did not change the everyday situation in the territories.

Heavily armed IDF forces still control the territories and patrol its streets. Olive branches cannot erase the animosities engendered by the intifada.

Just as it took years for the IDF to curb the rock-throwing, it will take time to learn how to deal with the olive branch revolution.

Israelis fear they will not have much time since their ally, the United States, is expected to push and prod them toward the next round of bilateral negotiations, which, this time, will have to yield some substance.

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