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Shopkeepers enlisted in West Bank struggle

Times Staff Writer

For 13 years, Hebron’s Old City has been so carved up by fences, concrete barriers and Israeli army checkpoints that most of its shops have closed. Starting today, the new Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is waging a campaign to get them reopened.

The initiative is part of a government program favoring nonviolent strategies against the Israeli occupation, a policy shift that has provoked fierce debate among Palestinians over how to achieve statehood.

Under the slogan “This City Is Yours,” the government is promising $200 a month for six months to any Old City merchant willing to navigate the maze of security obstacles, reopen his shop and keep it open, in the hope that customers will follow and help revive a historic district that now resembles a ghost town.

When Palestinians speak of standing up to Israel, they generally use the word mukawamah, or resistance. In Arabic, this is understood to mean armed opposition, which most Palestinians regard as a legitimate right in confronting Israel’s occupation of land they want for their state.

But for the first time since Palestinians began voting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1996, they have a government whose official program does not endorse or even mention resistance -- a pointed omission aimed at advancing negotiations with Israel.

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Instead, the agenda unveiled last week by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad highlights the word “steadfastness.”

It promises to work for a healthy economy, strong public institutions and a just legal order to “reinforce the steadfastness of the Palestinian citizens on their land” while their leaders try to liberate it through peace talks.

The $2-million campaign to revitalize Hebron’s Old City, one of the first special expenditures approved by Fayyad’s government, is widely touted by his aides as a prototype of this approach.

“Steadfastness is a form of resistance,” said Riyad Maliki, Fayyad’s minister of information. “When kids go to school despite the roadblocks, that’s resistance. When people brave the soldiers to open their shops, that’s resistance: peaceful, civic resistance.”

“We have opted to take that path: resistance with results,” he added. “We believe that approach can deliver the end of occupation.”

The United States, other Western countries and Israel have welcomed the rhetorical retreat from violence. It is expected to help Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is now in the region, to press for a resumption of the full-scale peace talks that Israel and the Palestinians broke off seven years ago.

Most Palestinian militant groups have branded Fayyad a traitor. The Popular Resistance Committees have threatened to kill him. In a joint statement, Hamas and Islamic Jihad accused the Texas-trained banker of renouncing “the mother of all principles of the Palestinian people” in exchange for renewed Western aid.

Nonviolent protest is not a deeply rooted tradition in the modern Middle East. Peaceful resistance was effective early in the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s but gave way to rock throwing and then armed struggle.

Today 57% of Palestinians believe violence can play a role in ending Israeli occupation, and just under half of those polled think violence has proved more effective than negotiations so far, according to a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Fayyad’s program is the antithesis of the one promoted in the Gaza Strip by his rivals in Hamas.

The Islamic movement, whose doctrine calls for Israel’s destruction, led the Palestinian Authority’s elected government for 15 months and was shunned by the West and Israel. In mid-June, Hamas’ violent ouster of the rival Fatah movement’s security forces from Gaza split the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the secular Fatah movement, fired the Hamas-led government and named Fayyad, who has no political affiliation, to lead a new Cabinet. The reach of their government is limited to the West Bank; Hamas remains in control of Gaza.

The split has left Gaza isolated, its cross-border commerce choked off by Israel. And it has weakened the authority of Abbas and Fayyad, whose West Bank-based government has regained Western financing but cannot win approval from the Hamas-led parliament, and has governed by decree.

But the divide has improved the climate for peace talks involving the West Bank, giving Fayyad’s nonviolent approach a chance to bear fruit, according to cautious assessments on both sides.

Israel last month freed 255 West Bank terrorist suspects who are not Hamas members and took 178 others off its wanted list for a three-month trial amnesty. In return, the militants pledged to cease armed activity against the Jewish state.

Ala Sanakreh, a Fatah militant from Nablus who is taking part in the trial amnesty, said the new atmosphere did not justify renouncing the right to armed resistance. But he said the Israelis had reduced their military operations in the West Bank and “seem serious about wanting a political solution.”

“We want to give them this chance,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, former deputy chief of Israeli military intelligence, said Israel wanted a more explicit rejection of violence from the new government.

“They still have a way to go,” he said. “But ... we don’t have too many strong supporters of real peace on the Palestinian side, so we have to work with those who are ready to work out some sort of settlement and avoid the use of terrorism right now.”

Aides to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert say he is reluctant to withdraw troops and settlers from the West Bank because he is skeptical of the Palestinian Authority’s ability to deter some militants here from plotting attacks inside Israel.

But Palestinian critics of Fayyad say he risks deep popular disenchantment with his nonviolent program unless negotiations lead quickly to a timetable for Israeli withdrawal.

“If Israel stays and continues to allow expansion of Jewish settlements, then these peaceful initiatives by our government will appear inadequate,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet official. “If the government appears irrelevant in the face of the occupation, it will rapidly lose public support.”

The stakes are evident in Hebron’s Old City.

City officials say measures by the Israeli army to keep Hebron’s 150,000 Palestinian residents physically separated from about 700 Jewish settlers in the historic center have forced the closure of more than 1,800 Palestinian shops, about three-fourths of those that once operated in the Old City.

Mayor Khaled Osaily initiated the campaign to reopen the stores and won financing from Fayyad last week. Besides offering the incentives for shopkeepers, the government will give donated flour to bakeries in the Old City so they can charge low prices for bread in an effort to draw customers in.

“Our people will get a better quality of life, better services,” the mayor said. “And when their lives improve, they will not go to the extreme. They will be on the moderate side.”

But many Old City merchants said they doubted the program would succeed because it did nothing to remove Israeli obstacles. Instead, it counts on customers to make long treks around barriers and risk harassment at checkpoints.

In three months of talks with Israeli officials, the mayor said, he was unable to persuade them to give Palestinians more freedom of movement in the Old City.

“This subsidy will turn us into beggars,” said Subhi Shawamreh, who sells candy from metal trays and is one of the few merchants on Qazazin Street who has remained open.

“We don’t want the money. We want the street open from end to end.”

He pondered a question about armed resistance as delivery boys rattled empty shopping carts over the paving stones of the mostly deserted street. “Violence will only provoke the Israelis to close even more streets,” the 51-year-old merchant said. “We just want peace to make a living.”

A few blocks away, near a military checkpoint, Jawdat Hassouneh, 70, was selling detergent from the shop he reopened last year. He had a different idea about resistance, having practiced it himself recently by shooing away Jewish settlers who tried to drill through his back wall and by ignoring a verbal military order to close his shop.

“Of course we need to have resistance, even armed resistance,” he declared. “The kind of peaceful resistance we’re practicing here is not enough, because the Israelis are not leaving. And they don’t intend to leave peacefully.”

boudreaux@latimes.com


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