Optimism, mixed with realism


BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The cafeteria at Bethlehem University is noisy with the chatter of students studying for exams, the young men and women who are the West Bank's next generation of lawyers, doctors and teachers.

Harboring the optimism of college students everywhere, they want to make a difference. Next month they can vote to choose a new president of the Palestinian Authority in what might be a genuinely open, contested election - a privilege that their grandparents never had, that their parents have only glimpsed and that remains unavailable in most of the Arab world.

"It gives us the best person to represent us in front of an international society," said Manar Abidat, a 20-year-old English literature major, studying for a test on F. Scott Fitzgerald. "It lets us exercise our democratic right to choose the best person to help us."

But excitedly discussing a foray into democracy, these students fear that the results of the Jan. 9 election are already known, because of efforts by Palestinian officials, Arab states, Israel and the United States to favor victory by Mahmoud Abbas, now head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has won the endorsement of Egypt, Great Britain and Israel along with tacit support from the United States. A former Palestinian prime minister, he speaks their language - against all violence and in favor of resuming negotiations with Israel.

Members of the PLO's Fatah political faction forced out of the race Abbas' only serious challenger, Marwan Barghouti. Fatah leaders believed a strong showing by Barghouti, who is in prison in Israel after being convicted of involvement in five killings, would signal that Palestinians were not ready to renounce violence.

Eight other candidates, none of them well-known, remain in the race along with Abbas.

The late Yasser Arafat defeated a nominal opponent in 1996. Now, some would-be voters complain that they again have no real choice, that the only serious candidate is Abbas, who they believe is the Bush administration's choice.

"I know that the Americans want Abu Mazen," said Abidat. "But I don't know why. He acts like he is our leader, but he isn't our leader yet. We haven't chosen him yet."

Jane Eid, a 20-year-old classmate sitting with Abidat, shared that skepticism. "Maybe the Americans like Abu Mazen because they know he will do what they want. America should respect whomever we choose, but I know they won't."

Pojah Ibrahim, 18, wants to be a social worker. She believes that the election won't change the way the Palestinians are governed but could help make change possible.

"Democracy here is difficult," she said. "If one party becomes big, it is not easy for them to share power. Having elections is a good start, and it could help us, but I think that whoever wins, the system will go back to the old ways. But at least it gives us a chance to express ourselves."

The campaign officially begins Sunday, and the candidates so far have made few public appearances. Only one has visited the university.

The future status of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem and the other big issues that have bedeviled prime ministers and presidents are not what people name as most important to them.

They want the next Palestinian Authority president to make day-to-day life easier. They want an end to Israeli checkpoints, they want the Israeli army to leave West Bank cities.

Abidat has to cross a checkpoint to travel from her family's home in Jerusalem to reach the university in Bethlehem. The distance is six miles. To attend a 9 a.m. class, she leaves home at 6 a.m., permit in hand.

"We want to be able to be free to move around," she said.

Bethlehem, one of the more accessible West Bank cities, is surrounded by 10 Israeli army checkpoints and 55 roadblocks. The number of tourists fell to 7,000 last year from 91,000 in 2000.

Bethlehem University was established in 1973 by a Roman Catholic order, the De La Salle Brothers. The campus is less political and less religious than perhaps any other in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Birzeit in Ramallah is the center for politics; An-Najah National University in Nablus and the Islamic University of Gaza are regarded as the training grounds for young militants.

Here, students talk of becoming hotel managers, translators and social workers. They read John Milton and Fitzgerald. They debate race issues in the United States, which they say are a more serious problem than the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. All of about a dozen students interviewed supported an end to the Palestinian uprising, saying that the four years of clashes had come to seem pointless.

Even the most politically active students, the young men who work on the student council and are active members of the Fatah youth movement, are searching for actions other than violence. These young men acknowledge being attracted by the jailed Barghouti.

Raid Ishnewer, a 21-year-old English literature major, said he agrees with Barghouti's refusal to foreswear violence, but he will vote for Abbas - in obedience to Fatah. "We will do it for the benefit of our faction and our country," he said.

"We don't care who has the solution. We just want a solution."

Ishnewer said his parents - a house painter and a homemaker - have little interest in voting. "They don't see any point," he said.

Among these students, the closest to a real debate came when Sami Muallem, a business major, said, "I think that someone from the left can represent us."

Ibrahim, the aspiring social worker, cut him off. "Represent him, not us," she said firmly. "I don't see anyone who can represent us truly. But at least we have a choice."

Then she paused.

"A real choice? It's not clear yet."

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