06 January 2005
Mahmoud Abbas may have been two and a half hours late for his noisy Fatah election rally in the rainswept, fog-enshrouded West Bank city of Hebron yesterday, but he was careful to pay homage to its local heroes when he arrived. He even began his carefully selected list of them with two who were hanged by the British after the murderous riots in the city in 1929.
On the stump, Mr Abbas sounds many familiar notes; praising the men and women he always calls martyrs to the struggle, promising to press for the release of all Palestinian prisoners, and pledging not to forget the militants on the run from Israeli forces seeking their arrest or death.
All this is one part of the difficult double act currently being run by the man who - barring the biggest upset in recent world election history - will be voted in as president of the Palestinian Authority in succession to Yasser Arafat on Sunday. The other is his intention, once in office, to try to bring about a halt to violence by all the factions as a prelude, if reciprocated by Israel, to a return to the long-moribund "road-map" to peace.
So far there is little immediate sign of such an outcome. In Gaza the cycle of lethal violence has continued to be remorseless. This is partly because the armed factions want to make Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw 7,500 Jewish settlers from the strip look like a retreat under fire; but also because of an even greater determination by Mr Sharon and the army to make sure that it appears as nothing of the sort. The result is that Israel responds with the hugely greater force at its disposal to every rocket and mortar attack - on Monday killing by tank fire six members of the same family in a strawberry field, five of them between the ages of 10 and 16.
Against this unpromising background, compounded by a policy of systematic house demolitions now even challenged by a few in the Israeli establishment, Mr Abbas's two condemnations in as many days this week of rocket attacks on Israelis by Gaza militants have not only been ignored but drawn bitter denunciations from the armed factions.
Yet when the Gaza Hamas spokesman Mushira Masri said angrily this week that Mr Abbas should be "for his people" instead of pitching his campaign to the "Americans, Europeans, and Israelis", he may have been missing one of the elements confirming Mr Abbas in his refusal to back down from his condemnations: a growing war-weariness among a significant proportion of the Palestinian public. Polls in this region are notoriously open to doubt- including one in early December showing 52 per cent of Palestinians now against violence against Israel. But there is a measure of anecdotal evidence to back it up.
The argument was raging openly, for example, among the customers in the barber's shop in Ramallah's Amari refugee camp this week; one Mohammed Flafel, 43, insisted that the armed struggle would continue for as long as necessary to end the occupation, adding in a deliberate sideswipe at Mr Abbas's known views: "I am with militarisation of the intifada, and this is not only my opinion. What has been taken by force can only be taken back by force." He would never, he said, get back to the home in Ramle his family fled in 1948 without jihad.
He was swiftly interrupted by another, Ramsi Jaber, 32 "You are talking a mirage; I am with Abu Mazen's slogans against militarisation."
Then the barber, Muhammed Hammad, summed up, saying the argument reflected that between Fatah and Hamas. He himself wanted a president "who can help me get a livelihood, and peace and security for my children." Of the intifida, he said: "We want to finish it. It has been too much. I don't mean we want to surrender. But we do want a ceasefire for several years."
He added that people had to accept that "the Jews is this country are a reality. Israel is stronger than us, stronger than all the Arab countries." What's more, he insisted, a majority in the camp shared his views: "Not everyone who prays is in Hamas; not everyone with a beard is in Hamas."
Even more notably, the articulate married sister of the last armed gunman from Amari camp to have been killed by the Israelis - in September - agreed. Amni Aydieh, 34, who has four children, is a Fatah supporter, and Fatah have faithfully picked up the new line from Mr Abbas. But she sounded entirely genuine when she said: "This intifada has not achieved our goals. It was not a mistake, but it went on too long. The number of prisoners has increased. The numbers of martyrs has increased. We want a rest."
The biggest fear, of course, of Palestinians like Amni Aydieh is that Israel will fail to reciprocate a truce, as they blame it for doing when one was declared during Mr Abbas's brief and unhappy prime ministership in 2003. But they seem to think that it's at least worth a try - without compromising the goals of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
And that in turn helps to explain why Mr Abbas's people insist that his first act as president will be to resume the daunting struggle to persuade the factions that the time to halt the violence has come again.