Palestinians who knew peace see glimmer of hope in vote


QALQILIYA, West Bank - The signs and billboards in this Palestinian city still beckon in Hebrew, relics of better times, when Israelis crowded the streets searching for cheap car repairs and cheap furniture.

For a time, the word coexistence was not a theoretical concept debated by Palestinians and Israelis but reality. It existed, right here. Merchants whose businesses have survived the past four years of violence talk glumly about lost income and lost jobs.

If, as expected, Mahmoud Abbas wins election today as president of the Palestinian Authority, he will face the challenges of ending a conflict that has global importance and solving problems that are profoundly parochial.

In Qalqiliya, people say they want what they believe all other Palestinians want: the right to return to Israel for thousands of refugees displaced by the Arab-Israeli wars; Israel's release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners; an end to Israeli army checkpoints; creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

But they have other, even more pressing demands.

Qalqiliya has no hospital, and people want one here. It also lacks adequate water supplies and sewage treatment.

Because of Israel's barrier wall, the community is largely cut off not only from Israel, but also from surrounding villages, and people want that, too, to change.

Above all else, people here want their long-lost Israeli customers to return.

An interlocking puzzle

For Abbas to solve those problems, he will have to tackle the largest issues dividing Palestinians and Israelis. Water is scarce because Qalqilya's aquifers are on Israel's side of the barrier. Army checkpoints won't be removed until violence stops; until the checkpoints disappear, people seeking hospital treatment elsewhere or students trying to reach schools will still face unpredictable delays.

Abbas, who is vying against six other candidates in today's election, is heavily favored to win. Preliminary results are expected tonight, with the final tally expected to be released tomorrow.

People in Qalqiliya speak with guarded optimism about what the election will mean; they, more than most Palestinians, remember the benefits of peace.

"We had it, and we lost it," said Bassam Monsour.

Monsour is an accountant who in 1998 poured his life savings into an auto repair shop. He had 12 employees and had so much work that he turned customers away. His customers were Israelis. Now, he is there with only his nephew, and most days they have nothing to do.

The main industry here was providing inexpensive shopping for Israelis. So many Israelis used to come that the mayor banned locals from parking downtown to make room for the visitors' cars.

Monsour's garage is at the end of a road that once led into Israel, but now abruptly ends at the wall and an Israeli army guard tower. The only way he can keep in touch with his former customers is by phone.

"War leads to losses," Monsour said. "And we have lost a lot."

No easy task

He was in the crowd listening to Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, when the candidate made a campaign stop here. Abbas stood near the wall erected by Israel, a hundred yards from Monsour's shop, and proclaimed that there could be no peace until the barrier came down.

"We hope that he will do as he promised," Monsour said, though adding that he also knows it can't be done. "It will be impossible to bring down this wall. Abu Mazen can't solve our problem without solving everything else. I don't know how he is going to do it, but he must."

Monsour reached into a cabinet drawer and pulled out a bag containing a plaque inscribed with a psalm written in Hebrew, given to him by an Israeli customer. He used to display this gift next to a picture of Arafat.

"Now," he said, sounding almost ashamed, "I just can't."

Qalqiliya would present Abbas with problems relatively easy to solve.

In the Gaza Strip, in contrast, he would face a population of 1.3 million people, at least half of them unemployed and without prospects. Militant groups, not the Palestinian Authority, exercise most of the power there. Gaza remains fenced in by Israel and largely ungoverned.

There are also the problems posed by Israeli and Palestinian expectations of each other.

Israel demands an immediate end to violence; Palestinians want an immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops. Neither side wants to be the first to act, for fear of appearing weak.

Progression to peace

A new Palestinian president will have to rein in militants intent on violence, reassure people like those in Qalqiliya tired of conflict while also trying to negotiate with Israel. The new president will also soon face elections within the dominant political party, Fatah, that could increase the power of younger rival leaders.

Any notion that Israel and the Palestinians will quickly negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement after the election is unrealistic, even absurd, said Barry Rubin, research director of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy in Herziliya, Israel.

"The first issue will be a cease-fire," he said. "Second will be the arrangements for a withdrawal of [Jewish] settlers from Gaza. That is what is going to take up the year. "

If elected, Abbas will also have to shore up support within Fatah, said Hillel Frisch, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

"Before he does anything, he has to consolidate power," Frisch said. "Still, he has a fighting chance. He will get all the money he can get from the U.S. and the Europeans, and that will empower him over time. He's buying time as he gets strong, and once he's reactivated the security forces, he will be ready to bargain."

A mixed message

Israeli officials agreed to pull out troops from West Bank cities and leave most checkpoints unguarded in the hours leading up to election day, but they are also trying to dampen expectations within Israel.

"This is a momentous time for the Palestinians," said Israel's ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon. "It is only but one event on a continuum, hopefully, which would bring them into a situation of building democratic institutions."

At campaign rallies, Abbas has embraced gunmen and vowed to protect them from arrest by Israel. But he has also called the armed struggle counterproductive and urged militants to put down their arms.

For Israeli officials, it is an unsettling dual message.

"He has to dismantle terror organizations over time because the understanding is, you cannot just work for a cease-fire with them. They have to be outlawed," Ayalon said. "If we talk about political and security reforms, you cannot have militias. ... This is the idea, and this will be his challenge."

For many Palestinians, Abbas has set exactly the right tone, as explained by Qalqiliya's governor, Mustafa al-Malkiz.

"The guns are for self-defense," he said. "There are two camps. There is the war camp - Israel - and there is the peace camp - us."

He continued, "There are red lines, and nobody can ignore them. We want peace, but peace depends on justice, and that depends on Israel. Abu Mazen can achieve peace, but he has to do it without surrendering to what [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon wants. It's not an easy task. The alternative is 100 years of war."

Far from optimistic

Nimer Shram, here in Qalqiliya, is impatient for something better.

Four years ago, weeks before the Palestinian uprising began, Shram invested $200,000 in a nursery across the street from Monsour's gas station. It would now fetch $20,000 if he were to sell it, he said. Profits have fallen from $10,000 to less than $500 a month; 90 percent of his customers were Israelis.

"I don't support this election at all," Shram said. "I don't see anyone who can give us hope. No one can solve this problem unless Israel changes, and that won't happen."

Sun staff writer Paul West contributed to this article from Washington.

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