Arabs Against Arafat

"I look at my little boy, and I ask myself, ‘What did he do to me that he should deserve this punishment?’ I tell you, if I could leave here tomorrow for America, I would."

We’ll call the speaker Mahmoud.

He is a taxi driver who lives in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem. He is a member of what could be called, if not the Palestinian silent majority, at least the Palestinian silent but substantial minority.

"We should have taken Barak’s offer. But the Arab leaders screwed us, they wouldn’t let Arafat accept the deal," says Mahmoud. He’s not a Zionist, no lover or even respecter of Ariel Sharon, and he doesn’t think the Israeli right, especially the religious right, will ever be prepared to make a "peace of the brave" with the Palestinians.

But neither is he a lover or respecter of the intifada. "It’s gotten us nowhere. We’re worse off than we were before," he says. At the start of the intifada, Mahmoud owned a clothing shop in the Old City. Now, with the Palestinians living in destitution, Mahmoud’s customers are making do with their old clothes.

He has taken to driving a cab for a Jewish-owned company, driving into the West Bank killing fields with Israeli license plates. "I don’t worry too much. If it’s my time, it’s my time," he says.

With a slight break in the action and a flurry of would-be peacemaking since the Tel Aviv discotheque bombing, a reality check on the Palestinians — the regular people, not the politicians — shows that a pall has come over them. They are deeply ensnared by a Catch-22.

On one hand, the intifada has brought them nothing but 500 or so deaths, thousands upon thousands of injuries, and the suffocation of their daily lives by torrents of Israeli soldiers surrounding their cities and villages. Politically, the intifada has destroyed whatever flexibility existed in the Israeli body politic, ousting the country’s most conciliatory prime minister, Ehud Barak, and leaving in his wake Ariel Sharon.

Yet for all the futility promised by a continuation of the intifada, giving up on it and trusting in negotiations with Sharon may seem, to Palestinians, as the greater of two evils. Sharon offers the Palestinians nothing, compared with what Barak was ready to give them; after choosing guerrilla war instead of Barak’s offer, if the Palestinians were to throw down their guns and sit down at Sharon’s table, they would be the laughingstock of the world. It would be tantamount to surrender. Peace may not be an option for them.

All one hears in the media from Palestinian leaders is hard-line talk: insisting on full Israeli withdrawal from the territories, totally blaming the Israeli side for the violence. The crowds at funerals and political rallies likewise show no give, only fight. But there are other Palestinian voices, Palestinians who don’t have to toe the party line, who are thinking more practically about their futures and the futures of their families, and these Palestinians sound like the kind of people Israel, or at least the pre-intifada Israel, could have made peace with.

"It’s too bad we didn’t take Barak’s offer. But Arafat was afraid that if he tried to share Jerusalem, the Moslem world wouldn’t have allowed it," says Khalil Ansar, a resident of the West Bank city of Tulkarm, on his way home from another day’s work inside Israel. The right of return didn’t have to be such a great obstacle, he says. "I think the Palestinians who are living abroad should stay there. It’s inconceivable that somebody who lives in Israel should be made to give up his home to somebody who lives in Lebanon," Ansar says.

As for Arafat, Ansar says, "His time is finished." Asked whom he favors as the next leader of Palestinians, Ansar mentions the West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub and Palestinian diplomat Abu Mazen.

When people speak of Palestinian moderates, these are the first two names mentioned. Asked if there is a party or movement that speaks for people like himself, Ansar says, "Yes. It’s called the Peace Movement." It even has a leader, although Ansar does not know the leader’s name.

Yet even among these moderates, the suffering of the intifada has taken its toll. Taher, who lives in a Palestinian village near the Green Line, has worked for Israelis and served Israeli customers for some 20 years. He has many, many Jewish friends. Yet, these days, an anger has come into his expression that wasn’t there before.

A few weeks ago his sister, in her mid-30’s, was having chest pains and was driven by her husband towards Ramallah, where she was to be taken to a hospital. "But they were turned back by the army before Ramallah, and she died in the car," Taher says. His son recently did $10,000 worth of remodeling for an Israeli homeowner in Beit Shemesh, but after paying the young man a little over $1,000, the Israeli refused to pay more, threatening to call the police if the young man persisted in demanding money, Taher says.

He blames the failure of the cease-fire on the Israeli side. "Arafat has done everything he can do. The Tanzim also agreed to the cease-fire. But when the settlers enter a village, break windows, uproot olive trees and start shooting, where is the cease-fire?" Taher asks. His moderation is cracking. His forecast is gloomy. "There are bad times ahead," he says.

On this point, there is no division of opinion, here there is true unity between Palestinian moderates and Palestinian militants — no matter whether they support the intifada or wish it would end, whether they believe in peace with Israel or hate the idea, virtually all Palestinians see it as an impossibility.