The Palestinian Headlines Are Talking About the New Sharon'

But there is still little trust in the true intentions of the Israeli prime minister

The news that Ariel Sharon had told members of the Likud's Knesset faction that the occupation was bad made the headlines in the two most important Palestinian papers, Al-Quds and Al-Ayyam. Although the headline made the front page on both newspapers' May 27 edition, the story was not the top news item, nor did it merit any special emphasis.

In Al-Quds, it was the third item below the main headline. "Sharon: Continuation of the occupation is bad for Palestinians and for Israelis; We cannot continue to control 3.5 million Palestinians." The article was splashed across three columns. In the item itself, the editor allowed himself a bit of subjective intervention: "Last night, the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, admitted the failure of the policy of forcible repression of the Palestinian people, which Israel has espoused since the 1967 occupation."

The editor of Al-Ayyam is Akram Haniyeh, an adviser to Yasser Arafat and a member of his inner circle. Al-Ayyam ran the story on the newspaper's front page, across a column and a half. In this case, the editor already allowed himself some license in the headline: "The new Sharon: Israel cannot keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation forever."

Immediately below the news item, Al-Ayyam printed a response to Sharon's statement from the Palestinian Authority: "The Authority: Sharon's statement is an attempt to soften global opposition to the continued occupation."

Al-Quds did not print any response from the Palestinian Authority, but it did devote its own editorial to commenting on the news. The writer of the editorial did not profess to understand the deepest secrets in Sharon's heart and proposed to wait - although not for long - until the true intentions would come to light. He wrote that many people saw the statement as a purely political maneuver, and that a few considered it a sign of genuine change.

Nevertheless, Al-Quds views Sharon's statement as being very important. In the newspaper's opinion, the mere fact that the prime minister has called for an end to occupation and to the suffering of the two peoples was evidence of the important role played by the Palestinian people: "Not a single observer can discount the role played by the Palestinian people, and its determined wish to attain its national rights, which it has proved by its enormous sacrifices, which persuaded Sharon and other high-ranking Israelis that the dream of continuing the occupation was but a mirage that would shatter on the rock of the determined Palestinian resolve, and the plan of the international community for a just and comprehensive peace in the region."

Clearly, Al-Quds is not interested in representing the violent conflict as a Palestinian failure - or the acceptance of the road map, which promises less than did the Oslo Accords, as an admission of failure. Notwithstanding the fact that this seems to be the conventional wisdom among many Palestinians.

On the way to hudna

This line is along the same lines as the editorial the newspaper published one day earlier, on May 26, in which it determines that the fact that the government of Israel adopted the road map - after the Palestinian government announced its acceptance of it - brings the sides back to the beginning of the path that leads to peace. The newspaper understands all of the concerns and reservations. But it also appeals to "extremists," and proposes that they understand that the international community possesses the means to apply pressure in order to force a solution of two states within the June 4, 1967 boundaries, and dismantling of settlements.

In his appeal to them it also determined that in the face of the same international community that pressured Israel to accept the road map, the Palestinians are required to show "unity of the word" and "bearing of responsibility" (code words for getting various organizations to stop implementing their own policies that are at odds with Palestinian government policies) and "drawing away from everything that presents the Palestinian side to the world as if it were opposed to the peace process, or that it espouses violence or what is called terror." In other words, Al-Quds is calling on Palestinian opposition groups to comply with the directives of the new government.

The same day, May 26, Al-Ayyam published an article signed by the writer Ghassan Zaqtan, who calls for the acceptance of the new reality that has been fashioned since September 11. He writes that the road map should be accepted - as a stop along the long road "that starts at the beginning of the previous century." Zaqtan does not speak of "peace," but rather of a "national program." But he comments that anyone who views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a narrow perspective, in which only the (Palestinian) flag is left waving on the beach at Haifa - is taking himself out of the game. In other words, in political codespeak, he, too, is arguing with those who intend not to obey the Abu Mazen government. Zaqtan also concludes that the road map is directed toward the establishment of a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 boundaries (or as he puts it: On 22 percent of the territory of Palestine).

Once the Palestinian government adopted the road map, the two newspapers no longer permitted themselves to express any doubt regarding the contents of the plan (i.e., mistrusting the intentions of the U.S. and other members of the quartet to bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state in all territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip). The most the newspapers would do is hypothesize regarding Israel's intent to implement the plan or not. An Al-Quds cartoon helps reveal how the Palestinians see the road map: A map of the Greater Land of Israel, with the West Bank and Gaza Strip clearly outlined in it, and two Palestinian flags stuck in them.

That same day, both Al-Quds and Al-Ayyam published a statement made by Nabil Sha'ath at An-Najah University in Nablus, that there were signs of a forthcoming declaration for a hudna (cease-fire) between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The item appeared on page two in Al-Quds; in Al-Ayyam, on page one. Neither paper reported confirmation or denial of the report by Hamas spokesmen. Two days later, Al-Ayyam would print a front-page report from the French news agency that "The Hamas movement expresses its readiness for a cessation of terror attacks [`actions'] if Israeli aggression and assassinations are ended." On Monday, June 2, Al-Quds would report, "Hamas is still studying the possibility of a hudna."

The main headline in Al-Ayyam on May 26 concerned the "conditioned" decision by the Israeli government to accept the road map. Al-Quds went one step further, and in red letters announced the two upcoming summit conferences, in Sharm el-Sheikh and in Aqaba. In keeping with the opinions expressed in its editorials, Al-Quds gave explicit coverage on its news pages to the anticipation of change. There are days when this is shunted aside by news about IDF actions in the territories: about the people who have been killed, the home that was destroyed, invasions, uprooting of trees in agricultural plots or about a settlement that was expanded.

Child against tank

The doubts, suspicions and disappointments with the road map are expressed in the two newspapers mainly via the cartoons and the photographs. Each day, Palestinian photographers provide additional examples of what is happening in the present tense: a soldier aiming his rifle at a group of Palestinians in Nablus, Hebron or Bethlehem, or barring passage at an improvised roadblock; a soldier requesting papers from a wheelchair-bound youngster; a soldier photographed with a group of detained Palestinians behind him, lined up against a wall; a child wearing an orange shirt in the Jenin refugee camp, about to throw a rock at an enormous tank. And the cartoons, also full of tanks: the easing of restrictions is depicted as Prime Minister Sharon drawing olive branches on a tank; the withdrawal is portrayed as soldiers in a tank, who are stuck in front of a huge dirt embankment. "I don't see any way that we can withdraw," says the soldier. The three-way summit is a little Sharon sitting on Bush's lap, with Bush hugging him; Abu Mazen is on the other side of the table.

And nearly every single day - in addition to the numerous reports on moves taken by Abu Mazen - is an item about Arafat, complete with photograph, featured on the front page. Here he is meeting with children, there with some foreign minister, here at a meeting of the PLO executive. As to the degree to which it is a pure editorial decision based on newsworthiness, or a political decision (not to shunt Arafat off to the sidelines, not to insult him) - each reader can judge for himself.

But on May 26, the two newspapers ran a full-length interview with Arafat that had been printed the previous day in Asharq Al Aswat, a Saudi Arabian newspaper. Al-Quds offered a summary of the interview on its front page. The headlines Al-Quds chose to run: "I will not leave my homeland and no one can banish me"; "My relationship with Abu Mazen is historic, but I would not say that there is full coordination between us"; "I say to those carrying out the explosion actions: It is a mistake to be like the occupation forces - to kill civilians." Al-Ayyam focused on the issue of the terrorist attacks: "Arafat once again denounces attacks on Israeli citizens: Opposition to occupation is one thing, attacks on civilians another."

Conceivably, this is an attempt to build up public opinion. But for the most part - by means of the excess of news items about the acceptance of the road map, the congratulations received from abroad, the support expressed overseas - the newspapers reflect the hopes, and the fatigue of the Palestinian mainstream from the travails of the Israeli military attacks.

As usual, the Palestinian newspapers do not articulate the enormous bitterness that the public feels toward its elected representatives and high-ranking officials, even in the context of the road map. Three weeks ago, a delegation comprising two Palestinian ministers and several Fatah delegates arrived in the Jenin refugee camp to speak with camp representatives. According to one version, the aim was to explore the possibility of disarming several groups, in accordance with the commitments set forth in the road map. At first, the sides seemed to be jocularly teasing one another: "And what are you doing for the Jenin camp?" the high-ranking officials were asked. "There isn't any difference between the Jenin camp and other places in Palestine," they replied. "The situation is bad all over. Hey - Arafat is living in a completely destroyed building, under siege."

But it soon developed that neither side was joking around. The visitors were told to leave immediately. A few armed men fired their rifles in the air, just to make sure their intentions were clear. The officials left, and moved on to the nearby home of a member of the legislative council. But they were cast out from there, as well, right in the middle of dinner. "There's no need for you to return until Jenin camp has been officially declared a disaster area," they were told, according to reports from camp residents, which were not reported in the Palestinian press. People are expecting a coordinated, effectual Palestinian effort to improve their desperate economic situation. Nice words from officials aren't going to satisfy them.

More than anything else, the Palestinians are expecting the road map to lead to the rescinding of the internal closure, which is impeding their right of movement within the territories themselves, or to Egypt and Jordan. Again and again, expectations are dashed. But the Palestinians hear on the Israeli radio station that the easing of restrictions on movement will be granted to Palestinian VIPs - the same privilege that in the Oslo years caused huge rifts to be formed between the select minority of well-connected individuals and all the rest of the population.

About 10 days ago, groups of furious Palestinians in the Gaza Strip blockaded the road to several Palestinian higher-ups who were on their way to Egypt via the Rafah crossing. It happened on at least two occasions. Two names were mentioned: Amin al-Hindi, the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service; and Imad al-Falouji, a member of the legislative council (and a former Hamas member who was once the Palestinian minister of communications). People in Gaza reacted to news of the incident - which did not find its way into the Palestinian newspapers - with much contentment.