'What Good Did This Do Us?'

Although the Balata camp was once a hotbed of Palestinian extremism, residents were reluctant to voice support for the terror attack by Hamas on Tuesday. Perhaps the movement has lost its ability to read public opinion in the territories?

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, Nablus - Images from the opening of direct talks between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government yesterday are not likely to remain in the consciousness of either side for very long. They are likely to recede into the past, like the photos from the summits in Annapolis, Sharm el-Sheikh and elsewhere.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did not want such a gathering to be held in Washington, and actually did not want to start the direct talks at all. For him, any contact with the Israeli side while settlement building continues creates considerable damage, in terms of Palestinian public opinion. According to a pessimistic scenario, this summit might mark the end of Abbas' political career, should it not bear any fruit. He has already announced that he has no intention of running for another term as president, if and when elections are held.

If the discussions produce no results, Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to be remembered in the history books as a distinguished prime minister. U.S. President Barack Obama's reputation will take another hit, and Jordan's King Abdullah II will be disappointed by another peace process, and especially concerned since the extremist Muslim Brotherhood is gaining strength in the Hashemite kingdom.

The only party that stands to gain, politically, from a failure is the one party that attempted to nip the talks in the bud on Tuesday night: Hamas. A day after the murder of four Israelis near Hebron, a senior Hamas figure told Haaretz how they had tried to join the talks, aggressively, through the back door, by means of the terror attack. The Hamas source said the group carried out the "action" to show that the PA's effort to create stability has failed, and that the U.S. and Israeli governments cannot forge peace and stability "with only part of the Palestinian people." This Hamas leader told the assembled leaders: "You won't be able to ignore us for very long."

The attack did not really come as a surprise. Israeli and Palestinian security officials said they expected Hamas would try to sabotage the direct talks. What was surprising was the organization's willingness to take responsibility for it, which raises the possibility that Israel will sooner or later act against Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. It appears Hamas preferred to take that risk, rather than allowing itself to appear politically irrelevant.

Given the stalled negotiations to exchange kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Hamas prisoners and an easing of the Gaza blockade, as well as the worsening economic situation in the Strip, it appears Hamas has seen its popularity slipping over the past few months. Every public opinion poll shows this. It seems that Hamas planned the attack to steal some of the spotlight from the Washington summit. It also was intended to compromise the PA leadership: It forced them to denounce something that many Palestinians consider legitimate. Yet it is also possible that Hamas has lost some of its very sharp ability to read public opinion in Gaza and the West Bank.

Overrun by apathy

The Balata refugee camp is known for being a hotbed of extremism. Yet a day after the shooting attack, Haaretz was hard-pressed to find any passersby who were willing to express support for it. Fear of reprisals by PA security forces clearly stifles such sentiment to some extent, but in the past Balata residents were not reluctant to voice full support for suicide bombings in the heart of Israel. Today, given the arrest of hundreds of Hamas activists by PA security forces, some camp residents seem to think twice about supporting the killing of Jewish settlers; others totally reject it.

Imad Hassan 03/09/10 Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

"What good did this do us?" asked Imad Hassan, a Balata resident who runs a pastry shop. Next to Hassan's establishment, Isa, who sells gifts, said Palestinians are busy trying to make a living. "You think we are terrorists, but we aren't," he said.

Not far away is the home of Hussam Khader, a Tanzim-Fatah leader perceived by many as a northern counterpart to jailed strongman Marwan Barghouti. He is known for his close connections with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and particularly to Nasser Awis, one of the founders of Fatah’s military branch and a legend among Balata residents.

“In the past, young people would knock on my door and ask that I make contact for them with Nasser or somebody else, so they could carry out suicide attacks,” Khader told Haaretz. “I would always tell them not to think about such reprehensible actions. Today the youths have long hair, walk around with music blasting into their earphones, singing and dancing. Since the Oslo Accords, Palestinians have become tired and apathetic. Since the failure of the armed struggle, the internal Palestinian split and the rise of armed gangs during the second intifada, the average Palestinian does not really care about anything. Terror attacks? He is apathetic. Negotiations? Also, indifferent.

“The current Palestinian reality has ruled out armed resistance. Hamas and Fatah do not want it. Palestinian leaders, from both Hamas and Fatah, are worried about their own positions of power. We are like a pregnant woman who aborted the idea of armed struggle. Instead, we have adopted the idea of negotiations.

“Thus, since last March I have been advocating the resumption of direct talks with Israel, without preconditions. Hamas might bandy about slogans about ‘armed resistance,’ but it is no longer deploying those tactics. In many ways, Hamas is similar to Fatah, though Hamas still has one foot in the pools of resistance; its other foot is standing on quiet and stability.

Khader, who was once a staunch opponent of Yasser Arafat, says Abbas lacks a mandate to concede the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. He uses his 16-year-old daughter Amira as an example.

“She knows her home is in Jaffa. My father was a student at the Hassan Arafa school, which still exists. It is our right to return there,” he said. “Abbas cannot concede the right of return, not even for concessions on Jerusalem ... Every Palestinian refugee has the right to return to his home, even if that takes 100 years to fulfill. This topic may be deferred, and there will be no declaration about an end to the dispute. I don’t see how this problem can be solved,” says Khader.

Isa, the gift-shop proprietor, says his family came from Lod. Memories of home do not disappear, “not even after 500 years,” he said. “I want to see what happened to my family’s house. If something belongs to me, it has to be returned.”

Hassan, the baker, points to a painting of a dove on the wall, and, half in jest, half seriously, he runs a knife across the bird’s throat. “Abbas will not concede the right of return; he cannot do that. But what do we really want? A place to live and pray. Enough. Nothing more than that.”