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Wary of Olmert’s Unilateralism, Palestinians Don’t Feel Optimistic

March 30, 2006
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The day after an historic election that realigned Israel’s political landscape, little has changed at the Kalandia Checkpoint on the outskirts of Ramallah. Palestinians still file past well-armed Israeli soldiers, bulldozers still work on closing gaps in the 20-foot high concrete wall that constitutes this part of Israel’s West Bank security barrier and optimism about the future remains in short supply.

“Each one of the Israeli parties wants Israel to be in control, the occupier of the Palestinians, so none of them will give us the state, none of them will give us our rights,” said Gada K., a Palestinian woman headed through the checkpoint in the direction of Jerusalem. “They are not concerned with the Palestinian people. They have the power; we are weak.”

Ehud Olmert, Kadima Party head and prime minister-elect, has proposed an Israeli withdrawal from almost all of the West Bank — facilitating, he says, the creation of a Palestinian state. He also called on Palestinians to compromise on their dreams in order to live next to Israel in peace.

Still, even with the old warrior Ariel Sharon gone from the political scene, the right-wing Likud Party left in tatters and Hamas in power in the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians say they expect few positive developments from an election that solidified Kadima’s place at the helm of Israeli politics.

The Israelis “do whatever they want. Nobody can stop them,” said Faisal Salam, a Palestinian from Beir Nebaleh, near Ramallah.

In many ways, Palestinians reacted to Israel’s elections with the same resignation and sense of fatalism that attended Israelis’ reaction to Hamas’ electoral victory in Palestinian Authority legislative elections two months ago.

“The State of Israel’s policy is consistent, no matter who’s in power,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American businessman who lives in El Bireh, a suburb of Ramallah. “I would not have been more excited or less excited if anyone else would have won.”

The reactions on the day after the election reflect the mindset Olmert will encounter as he seeks to push forward with his policy of separating Israelis and Palestinians.

Maher Abu-Gaidh, who lives in the village of Karyout, between Nablus and Ramallah and adjacent to four Israeli settlements, says Hamas is the only option for confronting Israel.

“I think the current policy of Hamas is the only solution to make Israelis change their minds,” Abu-Gaidh said. “They need a hard government — hard in their decisions, hard in their opinions.”

Abu-Gaidh suggested that Hamas’ hard line is political posturing intended to bring about a two-state solution along the pre-1967 boundaries, known as the Green Line. If Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, withdraw from the West Bank and cede eastern Jerusalem, Hamas would yield to pan-Arab pressure and agree to a two-state solution, Abu-Gaidh predicted.

Hamas spokesmen have spoken of a long-term cease-fire, but have hinted that they would keep the underlying conflict alive for future generations to resume.

In any case, if change does not come soon, there will be more violence, Abu-Gaidh warned.

“Hamas really came to governing to make a change, and they need to give the Palestinian people the feeling that something has changed,” he said. “So if the situation is really the same, with more settlements, there will be violence,” and Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ prime minister, “will encourage such violence.”

Despite the general perception of Kadima as a centrist party — and the fact that it is likely to reach out to left-wing parties such as Labor and Meretz as coalition partners — Palestinians seem to view Kadima as right-wing.

“Kadima is on the extreme right wing,” said Nazeeh Shalabi, from the village of Mascha. He ticked off Olmert’s “right-wing” policies one by one: all of Jerusalem should remain under Israeli sovereignty, the security fence will become the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state, and Israel will annex some Jewish settlements close to the Green Line.

“He says he is left or in the middle and wants to make peace, but he takes everything he wants,” Shalabi said.

After years of peace talks ended in intifada violence, Israel began building its West Bank security fence and withdrew from the Gaza Strip. But Shalabi, like many Palestinians, said Israel’s unilateralism had come at a heavy cost for Palestinians.

A father of eight, Shalabi has not worked in some time. He says part of his agricultural property was confiscated by the Israeli government — even though he lives more than four miles from the Green Line — and he has had to feed his family by farming what remains of his land.

“All the agreements Israel signed with the Palestinian Authority since 1993 didn’t accomplish anything,” Shalabi said.

“We live in open-air prisons with a wall around us,” Bahour said.

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