Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Palestinians Skeptical on Chance for Peace

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Palestinians Skeptical on Chance for Peace

Article excerpt

Although Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has often been proclaimed a martyr for peace this week, most Palestinians believe his policies hadn't even begun to address the real issues of peace.

In Bethlehem, a town of 40,000 often cited as an early beneficiary of peace, Palestinians across the political spectrum express deep skepticism, even despair.

They think Bethlehem is likely to become an early victim of Israeli policies implementing the peace agreement. These policies will further entrench Jewish settlers in this region, Palestinians say, and could make it even harder for Palestinians to work, shop and worship in nearby Jerusalem.

From his office overlooking Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij offers a stark caution for Rabin's Labor Party.

"Labor must do more! It must!" said Freij, long considered the most moderate West Bank Palestinian politician.

Freij, mayor since 1972, has long supported accommodating the Israelis. He invited Rabin to his home for lunch. He supported the 1977 Camp David peace talks and still chides Palestinians for repudiating Camp David.

But these days, Freij is more likely to focus on the problems rather than the promise of peace. Jewish settlers now number 135,000 in nearly 150 communities scattered in the West Bank. The interim peace agreement - which cost Rabin his life - does not address their status. But the Israeli government has made a concrete commitment to their continuation - building new roads that link the settlements to Jerusalem.

Freij is determined the settlements will go. They are "absolutely incompatible" with Palestinian autonomy, he said. "There can be no peace with the settlers here."

Real peace also means sharing Jerusalem, which both Jews and Palestinians consider their rightful capital, he adds. But that's another negotiation item that has been deferred indefinitely.

The interim agreement commits Israel to withdraw troops from several West Bank areas over the next six months. Senior Israeli generals were questioning the wisdom of that move even before Rabin's death. If Rabin, a famous general and war hero, had trouble keeping his military colleagues in line, Freij wonders, will acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres be able to accomplish it?

The transition to Palestinian law enforcement will come off, Freij predicts. Israelis are scheduled to hand over police duties in Bethlehem and five West Bank towns by year's end. And none too soon, Freij adds, gesturing with contempt at the barricaded police headquarters across Manger Square.

"The Israeli police force is totally inactive," he said. "They're just sitting there, locked inside their headquarters, drinking coffee and chattering with themselves."

A visit across the square finds a din of activity, although most of it relates to packing up. …

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