Political Outlook Blurs for Palestinians Too

Special to The Times

For Palestinians, Ariel Sharon has long symbolized the iron fist of Israel.

He is remembered as the leader who fathered the hated Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and who besieged Palestinian cities at the height of the intifada. He is loathed for the concrete wall he is building to divide Israel from a shrinking West Bank, and for his unwavering refusal to deal with Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian Authority president.

Yet his demise would throw the already tumultuous Palestinian political world into further chaos, Palestinians said Thursday, and create a vacuum that could spell trouble for Israel's neighbors just months after Sharon pulled Jewish settlers and troops from Gaza.

"Sharon's absence could turn things upside down," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official. He worried that as Israeli political factions competed to fill the void, the Israeli military might escalate its offensive on areas of Gaza where Palestinian attacks on Israelis continue to originate.

"There is a lot of uncertainty about how and where the Israelis will go with the end of the Sharon era," Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath told reporters.

Even among Palestinians, Sharon wins plaudits for his ability to take steps no other Israeli leader has taken, most notably the Gaza pullout. But the prime minister also received unprecedented backing from the White House, which Palestinians say gave him carte blanche to enforce policies they considered repressive and destructive to their interests.

"Sharon will be missed because he was able to make the hard decisions and carry them out," Said Zawawi, a 34-year-old teacher, said on the streets of Ramallah. "Sharon is not any different from all the Israeli leaders when it comes to the Palestinians, but at least when he makes a decision, he is strong enough to convince the Israeli people to support it."

Zawawi echoed numerous Palestinians in saying he held out little hope that circumstances would improve or even change much with Sharon gone.

"Frankly, I do not have much faith in all Israeli leaders," said Ramallah student Rashid Qawas, 17. "I do not think any of them wants peace, just like Sharon. All they want is to take our land and put us in a big prison.

"I do not think he could have been better for us if he continued in power," Qawas said. "On the contrary, he did not leave anything for us. Look at the wall and the checkpoints. Look what they are doing to us. We live in a big prison, and all this because of Sharon."

The Palestinian memory of Sharon is a long one. Many years before he came to lead the Israeli nation, they recall, he led the Israeli army in its invasion of Lebanon. He is forever associated in the minds of many Palestinians with the 1982 massacre there of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen -- Israel's allies -- an atrocity for which an official Israeli inquiry held Sharon indirectly responsible.

"Sharon harmed us not only here but also in Sabra and Shatila," said Zawawi, the teacher, referring to the refugee camps where the massacre took place.

During Sharon's tenure as prime minister, the endless and convoluted peace process between Israelis and Palestinians essentially withered, replaced by unilateral moves by Israel that the Bush administration encouraged. Sharon had not met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for months and allowed extensive building to continue in Jewish settlements in the West Bank as he erected the controversial wall that is designed to keep suicide bombers out of Israel and cuts deep into Palestinian territory.

Hani Masri, a Palestinian political analyst and columnist, said Sharon had erased from the platform of world discourse the issues of Palestinian refugees and control over Jerusalem, the city Israelis and Palestinians both claim as their capital. Enjoying the backing of President Bush, Sharon was able to recast the debate over peace in the Middle East in ways that obviated long-standing Palestinian demands, Masri said.

"In the short term, the situation will be worse for the Palestinians because of the confusion and power vacuum that Sharon's absence will leave, just like what happened when Arafat died" in 2004, he said. "But in the long term, it will be better for the Palestinians because Israel will not have the strong leader it just lost."

A less powerful prime minister might be more susceptible to international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians, Masri said. However, one who must prove himself quickly and consolidate support might be tempted to take an even harder line against the Palestinians.

Uniformly, senior Palestinian leaders expressed their concern and prayers for Sharon's recovery. By contrast, the militant organization Hamas, which is threatening to overtake Palestinian Authority politicians in upcoming parliamentary elections, said in a statement that the Middle East "would be better off" without Sharon.

It was not yet clear whether the Sharon crisis might become a reason for postponing the Jan. 25 Palestinian vote. Abbas has already suggested it might be delayed, citing the Israeli government's attempts to bar East Jerusalem Palestinians from the balloting.

The Palestinian leadership is also grappling with rampant lawlessness in Gaza and fears its mainstream Fatah party will lose substantial ground to Hamas in the elections.

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abukhater from Ramallah.

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