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A Personal Journey

The State of the Palestinians

The first place at which Sa'id Ghazali and I stop to give out our questionnaires is the Al-Wiheda Driving School in East Jerusalem. The four men and one woman in the office check off their answers carefully. "Never!" scowls a man when he reaches the last question, which asks if he prefers to live with Israelis in a single binational state. "The Jews think of us only as their slaves."

In Abu-Raja's coffeehouse down the street, the narghile pipes catch their breaths as we enter. "Ahlayn!" says Sa'id to a red-haired man, slapping him on the back. The red-haired man makes a friendly reply. The narghiles let out their burbly sighs; cards slap the tables again. Several men take questionnaires. "He's head of Fatah in Jerusalem," says Sa'id of the red- haired man. (Fatah is the dominant faction within Arafat's PLO.)

We give a questionnaire to Saleh Kawasmeh in his furniture store. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this," he says. "Jews--yes. A Jewish state--no. I don't know if it will take one hundred years or two hundred, but it will disappear." A female customer asks the price of a children's desk. "If two hundred is his final offer, take it," Sa'id says to me. Saleh Kawasmeh laughs.

Sa'id is a Palestinian journalist who has joined me for a week in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where we plan to talk to as many people as we can about the Palestinian state in the making. What do Palestinians think of it, want from it, expect it will be like? The questionnaire is Sa'id's idea. "If nothing else," he predicts, "it will break the ice."

Bernard Sabila, a professor of sociology at Bethlehem University, has done some polling of his own. Saleh Kawasmeh, he confirms, is representative; so is the reprieve he is willing to give me. Although 84 percent of Palestinians wish for "the liberation of all Palestine," 65 percent recognize "the right of Israel to exist."

A paradox? "Today's Palestinian dream is less the liberation of all Palestine than the fulfillment of middle-class aspirations," says Sabila. "In my last poll, only thirty-one percent of Palestinians thought political issues mattered more than economic ones; fifty percent thought the opposite. During the intifada, politics were everything. Now people say: 'There's a Palestinian Authority to deal with that. I need to look out for myself.' The real paradox is that, whereas two-thirds of Palestinians think of themselves as middle-class, the actual middle class is much smaller and shrinking. That's why ninety percent of Palestinians would support a declaration of independence but seventy-eight percent want closer economic ties with Israel, and sixty-six percent are against a return to violent struggle. Give them a decent standard of living, and a political solution is possible in the long run."

And in the short run? Although it now seems certain that a state will not be declared on its original target date of May 4, the declaration will come sooner or later--later if a center-left victory in the May 17 Israeli elections facilitates the resumption of negotiations. Yet suppose those fail, followed by a declaration of statehood in all of the West Bank and Gaza, parts of which Israel will claim. Flash points will be everywhere: control of territory, borders, roads, water rights, settlements, Jerusalem. How could the Palestinians establish their capital in Jerusalem without a forcible Israeli reaction?

"We are not planning a war," answers Jamil Othman Nasser. Nasser, the Palestinian Authority's "governor of Jerusalem," has his offices in Abu-Dis, a West Bank suburb just outside the city's borders from which the PA runs a shadow municipality. In the end, he is convinced, Israel will give in to international pressure. But international pressure, I persist, needs to be generated. Is not bloodshed the most effective way of doing this? "When the crisis worsens, the solution appears," is Nasser's Delphic reply.

In the evening, after dinner at Sa'id's East Jerusalem home, his brothers Assad, a plumber, and Jamil, a carpenter, drop by. Assad spent time in Israeli prisons during the intifada; both brothers work with Israelis; both speak an excellent Hebrew. Both are torn over the city's future. "I want to live in my own country," Assad says. "But I want it to be like yours. I want a legal system. I want health care. I won't have that in a Palestinian state."

Both brothers speak sadly of how the city's Arab neighborhoods have been neglected since 1967. Schools, sanitation, roads--all are in a wretched state. Yet East Jerusalemites still enjoy economic opportunities, physical mobility, and social services that are the envy of other Palestinians. "We're different from them," says Jamil. "The last thirty years have changed us. The West Bankers say we're like Israelis."

And if they had to choose?

"That would be hard," he says.

samir abdullah, a Prague-trained economist, has recently opened a private consulting firm in one of the many new buildings sprouting up all over this city just north of Jerusalem. He agrees with Bernard Sabila. Economics are the key--and the economic indicators are not good. As colonialist as Israel was toward the Palestinians after 1967, exploiting their cheap labor and captive market for Israeli products, conditions were far better before Oslo. Standards of living have dropped sharply since then due to the partial reestablishment of economic borders and Israel's mass replacement of Palestinians by foreign workers in the wake of Islamic terror and security closures.

Statistics? Abdullah knows them by heart. In 1991, 150,000 Palestinians, a third of the Palestinian work force, were employed in Israel, where average wages are double those on the West Bank and even higher relative to Gaza. Today the number--though it has risen again under the Netanyahu government-- is 90,000. Between 1992 and 1998, the Palestinian GNP fell by 30 percent while population grew by 25 percent. Unemployment now stands at20 percent. Eighteen percent of the West Bank's and 30 percent of Gaza's population live below a poverty line calculated at two dollars per family member per day. The Palestinian territories, 90 percent of whose trade is with Israel, which now bars most of their agricultural produce, import $2.5 billion worth of Israeli goods annually and export only $300 million. Although Palestinians now pay an estimated $800 million a year in taxes, compared with a reported $250 million during Israeli times, the Palestinian Authority runs a huge deficit that is 9. 6 percent of its budget. "We are totally dependent on the Israeli economy and foreign aid," says Abdullah, who would advise the PA to cut taxes and reduce a newly bloated public sector that employs 20 percent of the Palestinian labor force--"half of whom," he says, "do nothing."

But the PA in its present form is unlikely to loosen a grip on the economy that gives it a monopoly on bestowing work and patronage in a job-starved society. Economic reform means political reform. And political reform, as phrased by the always eloquent former PA minister of higher education, Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned from the Palestinian Cabinet last August to protest high-level corruption and who now heads a Ramallah-based institute for the promotion of democratic values, means "exchanging the mentality of revolution for the mentality of civil society."

like many palestinian intellectuals, ashrawi believes the Palestinians have what it takes to democratize in an Arab world notoriously unable to do so. " Our baptism of fire was the intifada," she says of the years in which Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule was powered by numerous grass-roots organizations uncontrolled by the PLO in Tunis. (She is less eager to acknowledge a second factor that many Palestinians, like Jamil and Assad Ghazali, speak of openly: their long exposure to an Israeli society that, at the same time that it abused and disempowered them, gave them an intimate view of a democracy's inner workings.) Like most of her peers, too, Ashrawi believes that democratization depends on the transformation of what Palestinians call "the factions" (fasa'il), the former Palestine resistance groups, from semiclandestine organizations run by self-appointed leaders into transparent political parties open to public participation and control.

Are there any signs of this happening? Well, Ashrawi says, there is the ex- Communist Party, now the People's Party, which has gone the furthest in this direction. (That same day in Ramallah, we speak to PP activist Mustafa Barghouti, who explains that, at a congress held last October, 7,000 Palestinians exercised their right to register and elect the party's central committee. Barghouti envisions the PP as part of a wall-to-wall "democratic coalition" that one day will challenge Arafat's Fatah and include the newly established Democratic Movement of Gaza's Haidar Abdul Shafi--shown by polls to be the most popular of all Palestinian opposition leaders--and possibly Hamas.) But Fatah, which for all practical purposes is now synonymous with the Palestinian Authority, is still run entirely from above. "I've told Arafat that," says Ashrawi. "I've given him concrete proposals for reform that he promised to act on. But he never kept his word. He has a different mind-set."

Well-known in the West, Ashrawi thinks that "people like me, who have some kind of immunity, must take the lead in criticizing." Our meeting over, however, she asks Sa'id a bit worriedly: "You're not going to publish this in Arabic, are you?"

It is a curious place, the state of Palestine in progress, free for an Arab country and far from that by the standards of the West, equipped with a full range of potentially vigorous democratic institutions that now churn in a void like an engine disconnected from its driveshaft. There is a popularly elected Palestinian Legislative Council that regularly meets in Ramallah to hold debates and pass laws that are ignored by the PA executive in Gaza. (A PLC-approved constitution called "The Basic Law," establishing a fully independent legislature and judiciary, has been sitting on Arafat's desk, neither signed nor vetoed, since October 1997.) There is a political opposition that (apart from Hamas and the Democratic Movement) is financially supported by the government it opposes. There are five different codes of law (British, Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli, and PLO) and hardly any courts or judges to administer them. There are nine different armed security organizations, all with the power of arrest, which exist as much to neutralize and intrigue against one another as to cow the population. There is a lider maximo who must not be spoken ill of, although those around him can be attacked with relative impunity. There is an excruciatingly dull press that censors itself, a large number of independent and sometimes lively television stations, and masses of Palestinians who talk scathingly about everything with no apparent fear of the consequences.

In one television station, Ramallah's Wattan TV, we hear a story from the director, Omar Nazzal. When U.S. air attacks on Iraq began in December, the station was one of several shut down by police after an American diplomat complained to Arafat that too many news clips of anti-U.S. demonstrations were being shown. The next day, the president of the Palestinian Authority dispatched his minister of public works, Azzem Ahmed, to Baghdad to assure Saddam Hussein of his support. "Your president is a liar!" Saddam is reported to have stormed. "I know all about those stations he shut down." Ahmed phoned Gaza and Arafat ordered the stations reopened.

"It sounds like you have to be careful," I say.

"Look," says Omar Nazzal, "the Israelis jailed me twelve times for political activities. How afraid of a thirteenth time can I be?"

sa'id and i head north to Nablus along the main road running up the mountain spine of the West Bank. According to Stage Two of the Oslo agreement, the road is classified as Area C, which is administered solely by Israel, as are the red-roofed Jewish settlements in the hills on either side. Other adjacent hills with Palestinian villages are in Area A, which is exclusively the PA's, or in the jointly controlled Area B. The notion of sorting out this mishmash into two separate countries strikes the traveler as rather quixotic.

On the main street of Nablus, Sa'id and I hand out questionnaires beside a row of typists' stalls. Each typist has three machines: Arabic for the Palestinian Authority, Hebrew for Israel, English for foreign embassies. I ask how business is.

"Excellent," says a typist. "There are many more forms now."

A man holding a form approaches me. His name is Da'ud Mahmoud, and he is trying to get permission for his wife, a resident of Jordan he married three years ago, to join him. Each of his estimated 20 requests has gone to the PA, which has forwarded them all to Israel, which has sent them back with a rejection to the PA, which has returned them to Da'ud Mahmoud, who seems well past the verge of despair.

On our way to city hall for a meeting with Mayor Ghassan Shak'a, we are warned by a pedestrian not to cross against a red light. "You'd never see that happen in Jerusalem," Sa'id observes.

"Well," I say, impressed, "here it's a Palestinian red light."

Mayor Shak'a, a smoothly affable Arafat appointee, smiles with satisfaction to hear of this. It is one of many ways, he tells us, in which the city has changed for the better. Large sums have been invested in infrastructure. For the first time there is enough water and electricity.

Shak'a, Sa'id whispers to me while the mayor takes a telephone call, is close to Arafat, which makes his opinions worth listening to. One of these is: "If postponing a state will help, why not?" Another: "There will be no military confrontation. We are not preparing for that." (Indeed, although it is hard to believe that the Palestinian Authority does not have contingency plans for an armed conflict, outward signs or talk of this is nowhere in evidence.) As for democracy: "It will come with a state. There are many democratic things we cannot do before then."

Such as?

"Such as," says Shak'a, "the hundreds of Israeli collaborators whom we cannot bring to trial because of the Oslo agreement. When we have a state, we will jail them all."

"The fourth of May! The fourth of May! The fourth of May!" chants a secretary with mock exuberance as she glances at the questionnaire she is handed on our way out. She stabs the air three times with a shaky finger in mimicry of Arafat.

jabbar and ayub (i'm not using their real names) run a little hummus place where Sa'id and I go to have lunch. Jabbar is 26, Ayub two years younger. They, too, smile at my story of the red light. Jabbar says: "If you saw the fines the police give out for jaywalking, you'd know why you were warned not to cross. Look at that car being towed away." He points out the window. " Thirty or forty of those go by every day. That never happened under the Israelis. The fines go into the pockets of the sulta."

The sulta is the Authority.

Electricity? Water? "Sure. All you want. It just costs twice as much."

Ayub produces a traffic ticket for leaving an unattended pushcart on a sidewalk. "I was told to pay or go to jail for twenty days." That isn't much compared with the five years he did for the possession of hidden weapons and throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers. "I never told the Israelis where those weapons were," he says, "even though they beat me. After my release, the sulta wanted them. I wouldn't hand them over, so they beat me, too."

"But why wouldn't you?"

Ayub looks at me. He is a good-looking young man with dreamy eyes. "While I was fighting in the intifada, they were fucking in the whorehouses of Tunis. I should give them my guns?"

"Who beat you harder?" I ask curiously.

"The sulta. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst... See, the more the Israelis hit me, the higher I held my head. But when the sulta...." He looks down at the table.

Ayub handed over the guns. Would he have been ready to go to jail for five years had he known then what he knows now?

"Not for one day."

Jabbar says: "We brought that scum from Tunis, and it's taken everything. It's even taken away our love for our country."

Like many of their generation, the only training for life they have gotten is the intifada and Israeli prisons. Now they see no future, no opportunities. ("I could try buying a chicken grill and expanding," Jabbar says, "but what good would that do? The sulta would tax me for the income before I made it.") Tel Aviv is as far away as New York. During the lunchtime hour, there is only one other customer and a beggar. Yet Jabbar and Ayub are embarrassed to take payment for our food. It has to be forced on them.

khalil shekaki is the brother of fat'hi shekaki, the head of the Islamic Jihad killed by Israel in Malta in 1995. But, though he looks like a thinner version of his brother, Khalil belongs to a different world. Columbia- educated, a political scientist who directs the Research Center for Palestinian Studies in Nablus, he is part of a Palestinian intellectual elite that is oriented to the West and America. One reason, it occurs to me, that this elite is so much more optimistic about the future than the Palestinian man in the street is that, plugged by the peace process into foreign universities, foreign foundations, and foreign grant money, it is doing well.

Shekaki concedes that the distinction between the "insiders" and the " outsiders," those min-ed-dakhel and min-el-harrej, as the Palestinians call the local, intifada-forged leadership and the PLO cadres from abroad, will remain for a long time. "The two groups were socialized differently," he says. "The ones who spent their lives in the Arab world are fundamentally authoritarian." But, although it is the "outsiders" who now control the security forces and the top positions in Gaza, the "insiders" will prevail once Arafat, who almost surely suffers from Parkinson's disease, is gone. There is simply no other PLO leader who can impose his will in the same way. And, despite Israeli indifference to internal Palestinian politics, Israel itself is a positive stimulus. Shekaki's polls show that 38 percent of Palestinians believe the Palestinian Authority to be a good model of democracy; 60 to 70 percent believe it of the United States; and 75 to 80 percent believe it of Israel.

The same polls show Palestinians to be divided on the timing of a state. " This gives Arafat the leeway to postpone a declaration for as long as he can get a good political price for it." And what happens when he no longer can? " Absolutely nothing," Shekaki says. "If I know Arafat, he'll declare a state having all the historical rights in the world and no defined borders, and everything will continue as before."

An intriguing thought. No bloody clashes in Jerusalem, no attacks on Israeli settlements, no guerrilla war--just embassies flying Palestinian flags from Washington to Kinshasa and a blurry status quo of claim and counterclaim that may or may not work itself out in a long series of ad hoc agreements, point by point, hill by hill, a road here, an aquifer there, now an explosion, now a period of calm. More of the same slowly shifting, possibly self-clarifying mishmash.

"kus ukht es-sulta!" curses the middle-age taxi driver taking us to the house of Abdul Sittar Kassem. "The cunt of the Authority's sister!" He spits on the windshield.

His words are addressed to a friend in the front seat. "Twenty-three years teaching in the classroom, and I have to drive this cab at night," he says. There is hatred and scorn for the PA everywhere.

A professor at El-Najah University, Sittar has already declared his candidacy against Arafat in the next presidential election. The only public figure I met who did not ask to go off the record when being nasty about the president, Sittar believes that the Palestinians have been sold out twice to the West: once at Oslo by "the PBO--the Palestinian Business Organization" and once by intellectuals like Ashrawi and Shekaki, who have abandoned their Arab heritage. It is his conviction, set forth with the charming paranoia that passes for political analysis in much of the Arab world, that Arafat comes from a Jewish family and is probably a Mossad agent. And yet, Sa'id tells me, his cultural nationalism has a following in circles that are not Islamic enough to identify with Hamas.

With Sittar is a dour-faced lawyer, Abdul Karim Hamdan, who tells of an acquittal he has obtained for several men accused of murder in the village of el-Khadr near Bethlehem. The murdered man, a land dealer named Adel Abu- Sebeih, was shot during the intifada for doing business with the Israelis; after the PLO arrived, his brother sought to clear the family name by bribing Military Intelligence to frame innocent villagers of slandering and killing Adel for mercenary motives. Although the defendants confessed under torture, Hamdan proved that two of them were in Israeli jails when the crime took place. Now, though, the Authority refuses to release them. "There's nothing I can do about that," Hamdan says. "But at least the judge was honest." (In Gaza several days later, I am told by PA Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdurrahman, reputedly the most liberal-minded of Arafat's entourage: "Do you know what would happen if we let those men go? Abu-Sebeih's family would kill them. We're holding them for their own good.")

Most Palestinians, even if they would like to, never get to see a judge. In an ordinary civil case, as Khalil Shekaki puts it, "with a good lawyer your grandchildren may get justice." In its absence, it is a question of whom you know.

a short distance from the NablusRamallah highway, Jelazun is no more a " camp" than dozens of other such sites in the West Bank and Gaza, an estimated 30 percent of whose total population comes from families that fled Israeli- conquered territory in 1948. It is a rural slum, a hodgepodge of cinderblock hovels on dirt streets with open sewers and an occasional finer home. Nothing has changed since the Israelis left, the residents tell us. They have not even been able to get the Authority to pave the road to the highway that turns to mud in the winter rains. Before Oslo, they could at least work and travel in Israel. Now the Israelis will not even let them go to East Jerusalem for medical treatment.

Yet something has changed. Once the walls in places like Jelazun were covered with anti-Israel graffiti. Now the scrawlings say things like: " Confront corruption and patronage and protect democracy and human rights!"

Sa'id and I hand out questionnaires. Men gather around us. We do not ask the right questions, they complain. Why don't we want to know if they would agree to a peace that does not return them to their 1948 homes?

Would they?

No. Abadan. Never. One man says he would settle for compensation. He is shouted down by the others. Abadan!

We are invited to the office of the camp's director, Muhammed Radwan. He serves us tea and tells me I am lucky to live in Israel. "You have a government that looks after you." Arafat, says someone, will die a traitor's death. Radwan reassures us. "No, no. We will only demonstrate. We will shout. But someone else, he may shoot."

on our way to the office of Saleh Ta'amreh, we hand out questionnaires. Some road workers take a break to fill them out. A woman behind the counter of a photography shop says: "Come back tomorrow when my husband is here." A man stacking cans of powdered milk in a grocery answers the questions on his ladder, checking "yes" to each one. "How can that be?" asks Sa'id. "I said 'yes' to the occupation, I say 'yes' to the sulta, and I'm saying 'yes' to you," explains the man.

Ta'amreh is a dashing figure, a tall, commanding man in his fifties with blazing blue eyes. A Palestinian military hero (he was taken prisoner by the Israelis during the 1982 Lebanon war) married to the former Queen Dina, King Hussein's first wife, he is a scion of the large Ta'amreh Bedouin clan, whose ancestral lands lie east of Bethlehem, and he heads the Palestinian Legislative Council's committee on Israeli settlements. On the wall of his office hangs a map showing the settlements and their lands. Marked in small blue patches, they do not look terribly threatening. Ta'amreh concedes that they occupy only seven percent of West Bank territory.

"The problem is," he says, "first, that they have been expanding like crazy under the Netanyahu government and, second, the bypass roads built to connect them. All these roads will remain in Area C. The Israelis are choking us by slicing us into smaller and smaller enclaves. Come, I'll take you on a tour."

We head in Ta'amreh's car for the village of el-Khadr--the home of the murdered land dealer we heard about in Nablus. Ta'amreh points to a wadi that descends to the Judean Desert in stepped fields planted with blossoming almond and peach trees. The soil is rich and dark; the pink and white blossoms catch the light like clouds at sunset. "You won't find trees like these anywhere," Ta'amreh says. His fingers curl with nervous energy, as if he were a boy itching to climb their branches.

We turn off on a dirt road that skirts the northern edge of Efrat, a rapidly growing town of some 10,000 inhabitants, the largest Jewish settlement south of Jerusalem. A new neighborhood is being laid out on a rocky hill carved into giant terraces. It is a hill I was on four years ago, covering a rowdy demonstration. The demonstrators were settlers protesting the Rabin government's refusal to let them build there.

the houses of el-khadr appear. at their foot is a smashed stone wall. Water is spurting onto the stones from a broken pipe. Up ahead is a power shovel, its great beak pecking at the rock. Uprooted grapevines lie in a field. "God! Yes! They've started again!" exclaims Ta'amreh, telling the driver to stop.

The power shovel, it seems, has resumed work, suspended because of Palestinian and American objections, on widening the road--which, paved, will link Efrat to Tikva, a new settlement at the desert's edge. "You!" says Ta'amreh to some villagers who are watching the water run from the pipe. "Why don't you burn that goddamn machine?" He seems to be deliberating tearing it apart with his own hands.

The villagers say nothing. Ta'amreh reaches for his mobile phone. I walk over to the Israeli shovel operator, who has climbed out to see what is happening. "This is injustice!" Ta'amreh is shouting to the American consulate in Jerusalem. "The Netanyahu government is destroying not just the land but the peace!" The shovel operator is annoyed. "What is he yelling about?" he asks. "The road will serve Arab villages, too. I voted Labor. Don't blame Netanyahu on me."

A man in a sweater comes up to me. His name is Omar Salah. If I am a journalist, perhaps I can help. That unfinished house over there, a hundred meters away: he has built it for his family of a wife and eight children. Now the Israelis have made him stop because it is too close to the road. He shows me an injunction in Hebrew.

Ta'amreh finishes phoning a Bethlehem television station. He is in a state of high fury. "This whole peace is a deception!" he declares. "And I am part of it! I have failed to protect a single one of these people's rights! I am calling Arafat and resigning! You are putting us in a cage! Why don't you just bring gas chambers?"

He does not call Arafat. We wait by the side of the road. An Israeli cement mixer lumbers by, and Ta'amreh curses it. I ask if he would agree to the settlements remaining as part of Palestinian territory.

"If the settlers accept Palestinian law and live as Palestinian citizens," he says. He clearly does not believe this will happen.

"But why not as Israeli citizens? They could still live under your law. You would only have to give them equal treatment."

"I'm afraid we would give them a lot better." But this is said with a grin. He is calming down.

Eventually, a consular representative and a TV crew arrive, and Ta'amreh does his thing for each. The power shovel resumes work. We head back. He talks about his Bethlehem childhood, the seasons, the fruits of the year. An image he has used reminds him of "the most terrible sight of my life": his father, a British Mandate employee, standing in a British punishment cage. And the most beautiful? "That hill on your left--my uncle had a vineyard on it. It was my aunt coming down at the end of a summer's day with a basket full of grapes on her head."

the hour's drive through Israel from the West Bank to Gaza passes from the Second World to the Third via the First. Yet the Third World is getting a skyline: high-rise apartment buildings and fancy new villas are growing out of the sands. One villa belongs to "Abu-Mazin," Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader considered Arafat's most likely successor. "He built himself another in Ramallah," says our driver, a stocky, blond, young man I'll call Nadim, whom we have hired because Sa'id's Israeli license plates are not valid here. " Damn the day they came to Gaza!" he swears as we pass the elaborate affair of towers and turrets. "If the Israelis came back tomorrow, I wouldn't throw a stone."

"And the day after?"

"I swear. There's no fight left in us. We had a dream. It's gone."

Nadim is relatively well-off because he owns a new car, bought by selling his wife's and his own family's gold jewelry; now the mainstay of both families, he drives it 20 hours a day, sleeping in it when he can. All he hears from his passengers, he says, are woes: taxes that can't be paid, disputes that can't be settled, illnesses they can't afford to treat. Fortunately, he has an uncle, a colonel in Military Intelligence, who, as he puts it, "lives off the people's blood" and is good to know. Not long ago, when Nadim got into a fight with a member of the Preventive Security Force and was summoned for interrogation, he went to his uncle, who tore up the summons, phoned Preventive Security, and said, "Keep your hands off my nephew. "

It is pointless to ask Mohammed Hamze, the Preventive Security Force's " director of research" to whose office Nadim has driven us, to comment on the rivalry among the security organizations--which also number the old Fatah commando unit Force 17; the police; the National Guard; regular intelligence; the Presidential Guard; the Marines; and the Rapid Intervention Force, all of whose uniforms can be seen in profusion on Gaza's streets. Nor do I ask about rumors of different organizations backing different successors to Arafat.

In general, Hamze says, the PA is in a bind. If it fails to act aggressively toward organizations like Hamas, it is blamed for being lax on terror, and, if it cracks down, it is charged with violating human rights. Still, it has managed to dismantle Hamas's terrorist infrastructure and prevent numerous attacks on Israelis; a recent sweep of Hamas houses turned up large amounts of arms. In the course of it, Ra'id Attar, a Hamas activist subsequently tried and sentenced to death, killed a Palestinian policeman. Now, explains Hamze (who declares that the PA's greatest wish is to turn Hamas into a purely political party), the Authority is being criticized for arresting the editors of the newspaper Al-Risala, the organ of the National Islamic Salvation Party, for publishing inflammatory reports of Attar's innocence. "But our policy is clear," he says. "Anyone inciting terrorism will be jailed."

the next day we talk to yahyeh musa, secretary-general of the Salvation Party and one of the eleven editors arrested. The paper's only crime, he says, was calling for a civil rather than a military trial for Attar, so that evidence could be introduced in his favor. I also speak with Ismail Abu- Shinab, an engineer and Hamas intellectual whose house was recently raided. " Whenever the Israelis searched my home," he says, "they rang the bell and behaved decently. These men entered from the roof and made a shambles. My wife said to me: 'During the occupation, I told the children it was the Zionists. What shall I tell them now?'"

The Salvation Party, founded in Gaza by Hamas breakaways who chose the political route urged by the PA, has only 4,000 members; this is a tiny fraction of the estimated 20 percent of Palestinians (higher in Gaza and among the young) who support Hamas, in which a fierce debate is said to be taking place over whether to follow the Salvation Party's example. Indeed, not the least of the dilemmas facing Palestinians today is that the only organized mass opposition to Fatah comes from Islamic fundamentalists whose commitment to democracy is dubious. Although men like Abu-Shinab and Yahyeh Musa pay lip service to democratic values, dismissing the suggestion that they wish to establish an Islamic dictatorship, they clearly have internalized these values no more than has the leadership of the PLO. The Islamic movement, they protest, does not want an Iran or an Algeria in Palestine. What does it want? Both agree on ... Sudan. (Bizarrely enough, I have heard the Sudanese held up as a democratic model by other Islamic supporters as well.) Hamas is the potential tiger that the genuinely democratic forces in Palestinian life must think carefully about trying to ride.

Democracy! All the Palestinians talk about it. But what does it mean to them? "Let's ask Nadim," I say to Sa'id.

"Democracy?" muses our driver. "That's the right to say what I want."

"Suppose I want to say that the Prophet is a liar?"

He mulls that over. "That would be all right if you were a Christian."

"And if I were a Muslim?"

"No, it wouldn't be." A few moments later, he reverses himself. "Well ... that isn't my opinion, but if it's yours ... I suppose you should be allowed to say it." He weaves the car between a donkey cart and a bicycle. "I'll tell you what else democracy is. It's being able to hold hands with my wife in the streets of Gaza." Another bicycle. "But not my unmarried sister. I wouldn't want her doing that."

"What if she did?"

"I'd beat her up."

"And if she went to the police? What should they do?"

This time the answer is longer in coming. You can almost hear the wheels spin. Then, grudgingly: "They should put me in jail. But when I get out, I'll never talk to her."

Not bad for someone who has never studied political science at Columbia. "I think," says Nadim when asked to pull over so that we can hand out our questionnaires, "that you had better get permission from the Authority. Gaza isn't the West Bank. You could get into trouble here."

He drives us to the Government Information Office, where we are taken to its director, Huda Hamudeh. She studies the questionnaire while we sip coffee. "I'm sorry," she pronounces. "This is not professional. It does not say who you are working for. That could be anyone."

"Whoever wants to know," I say, "need only ask."

"Yes," says Huda Hamudeh. "But, if it's the security forces, the questions may be unpleasant. I don't want you being under suspicion."

"We won't be if you give us a permit."

"How can I give you a permit to deceive?"

And so we do without Gaza. In the end, we obtain 141 completed questionnaires, the results of which appear on this page. It's not a scientifically acceptable sample, but surely it's significant. And problematic, too, for, not only does this slice of the Palestinian public's attitudes toward a peace settlement fall well short of minimal Israeli demands, they are more hard-line than the apparent position of the PLO leadership. Where, then, do Israel's interests lie: with a corrupt and autocratic PLO that can perhaps collect the guns and deliver a peace of sorts, or with the democratization and economic development of a society that might eventually, alone in the Arab world, share a bond of common values with Israelis? It is not a simple question. Still, there is something distasteful in an Israeli "peace camp" that, like its American counterpart after the fall of Vietnam, has washed its hands of a people by consigning them to a thuggish clique of "liberators." What bothered many Israelis, it would appear, was less oppressed Palestinians than an oppressive Jewish conscience that has now been relieved of its burden.

eyad sarraj, a well-known psychiatrist and human rights activist, is involved in Haidar Abdul Shafi's Democratic Movement. Sitting in the garden of his Gaza home in a gym suit, he sketches three scenarios for the future.

The first is "the Syrian scenario." Arafat dies or retires; after the prescribed two-month period in which the temporary presidency of the PA goes to "Abu-Ala," Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qurei, Abu-Mazin, supported by the bulk of the security forces, cancels or rigs presidential elections and institutes an Arab-style police state to suppress popular resistance to the move. "I give that a thirty to thirty-five percent probability," says Sarraj.

Scenario Two is the "Algerian" one. While giving it only ten to 15 percent, Sarraj thinks it could materialize as early as this year, when municipal elections are scheduled. "Hamas may decide to participate and do surprisingly well, and the Authority might nullify the results. This could lead to a popular uprising and civil war not only between the PA and a democratic coalition rallying around Hamas, but among different security forces as well."

Scenario Three: Arafat departs the scene, presidential elections take place, a fairly elected candidate wins, "The Basic Law" is signed into existence, and Palestine is on its way to becoming a Western-style democracy. "Fifty percent," Sarraj says.

Westernization, a process no Arab people has undergone internally, is what it is all about, he believes. "We are still a tribal society with a sheikh named Arafat," he says. "We don't have a fully developed sense of individuality." Tearing traumatically away from the smothering cocoon of the Arab world is not something that can be done overnight. But, if any Arab people is capable of it, Sarraj thinks, it is the Palestinians--if they can mobilize themselves. "Deep down we know we have rights. This gives us a strong sense of injustice. Until now we could live with it because the enemy was Israel. But now the enemy is us. Fighting it means killing something in ourselves. It is this knowledge that is paralyzing our society, paralyzing our political life."

Nadim drives us to the Erez checkpoint. He is silent on the way.



Have sufficient preparations for a state been made?



Are you in favor of declaring it on May 4?



Would you postpone this declaration for the sake of negotiations with Israel?



Would you want a state even if it did not include all of the West Bank and Gaza?



Would you want a state even if it did not include Arab Jerusalem?



Would you want a state even if Israeli settlements remained in it?



Would you want a state even if there were limits on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to it?



Would you want a state even if it had no army?



Would you want a state even if it were not democratic?



Which would you prefer?

A totally independent Palestinian state


A Palestinian-Jordanian confederation


A Palestinian-Israeli confederation


A single binational state for Arabs and Jews


Hillel Halkin is a writer and translator living in Israel and a contributing editor of the Forward.

By Hillel Halkin