Palestinians Protest Start of Direct Negotiations

Hundreds of Palestinians protested in Ramallah and Gaza yesterday against the start of direct peace talks, charging that Israel and the United States forced the talks' terms of reference on the Palestinian Authority.

The protesters, who included left-wing activists, academics and businessmen, said the negotiations set to begin today lack international commitments to ensure their success.

Organizers handed out a flyer asserting that given what it termed Israel's stated intention to continue building in the settlements and East Jerusalem, the Palestinians were entering a quagmire of "negotiations for the sake of negotiations."

Such negotiations, it added, would enable Israel to complete its "racist seizure of control, and give Israeli aggression an opportunity to sabotage the existence of an independent Palestinian state."

Speakers included representatives of two political parties - the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - as well as Munib al-Masri, an energy tycoon who headed PA President Mahmoud Abbas' task force on reconciliation with Hamas.

Protesters said they believe no Palestinian representative can agree to Israel's terms, and consequently, when the talks predictably fail, the Palestinians will once again be blamed. "This will lead to more difficult and dangerous results than those we saw in the past, after the failure of the Camp David talks," said one, referring to the second intifada.

The rally's sponsors, who set up a "monitoring committee" to plan further demonstrations, said they believe they represent the views of most Palestinians.