Palestinians pessimistic - and broke

"Where are all the millions the Palestinians are supposed to receive?"

palestinian boy 88 (photo credit: )
palestinian boy 88
(photo credit: )
Khamis Hawari slapped a greasy wad of NIS 50 bills into his palm. "Where are all the millions the Palestinians are supposed to receive?" he demanded. It's not every day that a Palestinian leader is granted an audience with the world's most powerful man. But few Ramallah residents on Thursday seemed hopeful that the much-anticipated sit-down would yield results. In his meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas Thursday, US President George Bush affirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state and criticized Israel's settlement policy. But, like many Palestinians, Hawari, who owns a jewelry shop across from Ramallah's landmark al-Manar Square, remains pessimistic and worse, he said, broke. "Nothing that happens in those meetings will help our current situation," said the bleary-eyed merchant while flipping the channels on his satellite television from Al-Jazeera to the American sitcom 'Friends.' The wad of bills is for show. The empty ledger he produces from underneath one of his twinkling displays reveals the sad truth. "I haven't made a sale all week," Hawari grunts, and flips through the green backed book. His shop sparkles. Though he frequently hosts a bent and bespectacled man who doggedly tries to sell him a plot of land, Hawari has no customers. Every diplomatic move, observed another shop-owner, Ihsan, 50, who owns a Ramallah ice-cream parlor, "has to be okayed by Israel. They control our fate, not Abbas or Bush." For many Palestinians, this season's month-long Ramadan festival seems identical to years past. Bush may say he hopes to see a Palestinian state, but terror attacks keep Israeli troops tightly controlling the perimeters of Palestinian towns and travel remains nearly impossible. Traditionally, Ramadan is a time to buy gifts and new wardrobes for children. As in every year, downtown Ramallah Thursday bustled with thousands of shoppers browsing windows or inspecting fruit ahead of the break-fast feast of Iftar. "But nobody is spending anything substantial," said Ihsan, "we are doing OK in retail, but not selling nearly anything in wholesale." People like Ihsan and Hawari are most distressed by the sluggishness of the Palestinian economy, then by the gang rule in the streets, and finally by still-distant Palestinian statehood. Tellingly, Hawari and Ihsan would not utter the terms "chaos," "militants" or "gang rule" aloud. The preferred code seemed to be "that other problem, which I don't want to talk about." Few Palestinians, much less merchants, want to make enemies of the myriad militant groups prowling Palestinian streets. "There is a chance now in Palestine for a historical role waiting for a great leader to fill it," wrote Palestinian columnist Hassan al-Batal in Wednesday's edition of the daily Al-Ayyam. Locals feel that neither Bush nor Abbas are up to the task. Hawari, who sold his share in a Staten Island pizzeria to return to his native land, believes that if the Bush administration wanted it could impose a peace deal on Israel and the Palestinians. "It's just that Bush doesn't want it," he said. Abu Iyad, 40, owns a computer shop near Ramallah's main mosque, said Abu Mazen "wants a peace deal, but cannot deliver it because of Israel." He called Abu Mazen a "good diplomat," but failed to see how he could stop the violence. Fatah stalwart Kadura Faris echoed that sentiment Thursday when he told Israel Radio that it would be impossible for Abbas to dismantle the terrorist organizations. Palestinians, said Dr. Muhammed Dajani, an analyst at Al-Quds University, "are disillusioned with their government. There are no fresh faces or ideas. It is all more of the same, and there is much desperation regarding the status quo." The Palestinian street had hoped for a "quick fix" from the US "which would pressure Israel on checkpoints and settlements," said Dajani. But Palestinians have weathered enough disappointment not to expect it from their own government or Israel, said Dajani. The skin on Hawari's face was sagging and his eyes glazed over. He has been unable to drive home to his Nablus-area village since Israel closed West Bank roads to Palestinian traffic following the murder of three young Israelis in Gush Etzion on Sunday. So he slept in the store, breaking the fast alone. "We are prisoners again," says Hawari bleakly, "we have no money, and there is no hope for the future."