Many in West Bank prefer to suffer rather than surrender

Sunday, August 25, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The ruins of the Palestinian Authority headquarters lie near Samir Habib's fruit stand. Dust from the rubble settles on his pomegranates and melons, a constant reminder of the Palestinians' frustrated desires for statehood.

Despite the hard response from Israel, like the shells that wrecked Yasser Arafat's headquarters, the shopkeeper said his people won't stop fighting.

"I believe that it is only the uprising that can bring us to our goals," the 48-year-old said. "Political talks should go side-by-side with the resistance. Otherwise, the Israelis will not have any respect for us, will not listen."

He and others like him in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip say they would rather suffer than surrender their dignity.

Few Palestinians believe their bombs, rifles and rocks will ever be enough to defeat the Israeli army. Their attitude has less to do with winning than exacting revenge and proving their spirit cannot be defeated.

"Despite the fact that it (the intefadeh) did not achieve better conditions on the ground, Palestinians are satisfied that they confronted a superpower," said Ismail Abu Shanab, a spokesman for the militant group Hamas, which has organized many attacks on Israelis.

Moderate voices are rarely heard. Those who consider the uprising a mistake or oppose suicide bombings often won't speak openly, for fear of being branded traitors.

In June, several dozen Palestinian intellectuals and political leaders made an unusual appeal for an end to suicide bombings in a full-page ad in a Palestinian newspaper. The appeal drew little public support, and several Palestinian factions published harshly worded leaflets denouncing its authors.

One of the proponents of nonviolence, legislator Hanan Ashrawi, said the 23-month-old uprising was, in its first stages, the kind of mass protest campaign she supports. She blames attacks by Israeli troops for turning those marchers to violence.

"The people who had guns started using them" against the soldiers, Ashrawi said.

Israel maintains gunmen mingled with unarmed protesters from the start, and used the cover of civilians to fire on Israeli soldiers.

Signs of Israel's crushing response to the intefadeh are everywhere in Ramallah, from the smashed concrete of the Palestinian Authority headquarters to the Israeli checkpoints that choke traffic on the roads to Jerusalem -- a 30-minute drive away. An Israeli curfew keeps residents in their homes from dusk to dawn most days and all day Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

The black, white, green and red of the Palestinian flag flutters over the city, but it is clear power rests with Israel, which took control of Palestinian urban areas after suicide bomb attacks in Jerusalem.

Opinions surveys indicate support is high among Palestinians for fighting the Israelis.

A poll earlier this summer by the Jerusalem Media & Communications Center, a Palestinian company, said two-thirds of those surveyed supported the bombings and four-fifths backed the uprising. The results, which had an error margin of three percentage points, were similar to surveys in March and December.

For all his vocal support of violence, Habib the fruit seller said he's too old to throw stones or fire a Kalashnikov. His brother and partner, Tayseer Habib, nodded.

Even through their stand's earnings have fallen from nearly $2,200 a month to $325, resistance for them, they agreed, focuses on stubbornly reopening what was once one of the biggest fruit and vegetable markets in Ramallah after each Israeli raid.

Twice, Israeli soldiers have tried to clear a buffer zone around the Palestinian Authority complex. The Habibs lean boards against any walls that escape the bulldozers and raise a temporary roof of corrugated iron to try to protect their wares from the pulverized concrete kicked up by passing cars and the wind.

Ashrawi, the legislator, argues that if what she calls Israeli provocations ended, moderates might be able to reach Palestinians like the Habibs, who have so obvious a stake in a return to calm.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have reached an accord that provides for a gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian areas in exchange for a halt to violence. But prospects are shaky since militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are sneering at the test.

Sensing the Palestinian mood, both groups have turned down all appeals to halt attacks in Israel. In the past, they have suspended attacks for extended periods when they felt violence did not have popular backing.

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