Crack of Israeli bullets ends activists' protest against barrier

Click to follow

At first, at least, there is an almost carnival spirit among the few dozen demonstrators gathering at the gap in the separation barrier, which at this point is deep inside the occupied West Bank. The speeches and chanting against the barrier, whose route has swallowed 200 acres of Bil'in's farming land, proceed calmly for half an hour or so.

And then the mood suddenly changes. A few of the protesters try to move back the roll of barbed wire in front of the border police jeeps blocking the entry to an outpost of the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit. At the same time, well away from the demonstrators at the barrier, some stones are thrown. Almost instantly there is the crack of rubber bullets fired by the policemen. Despite regulations requiring a minimum 40-metre range, the first are fired directly at the protesters. An American activist is hit in the head - he was released from an Israeli hospital on Sunday - and the demo organisers say that in this and later incidents, seven Palestinians are injured.

This ritual, repeated every Friday over 16 months, is probably the highest profile joint action between Palestinians and (some left-wing activist) Israelis. Its single purpose is to protest against a barrier declared unlawful by the International Court of Justice.

It is a far cry from hope of a lasting peace which began to sweep through much of the two publics around the time of the first Oslo accords in 1993.

So what happened? After the collapse of Camp David, the ascent of Ariel Sharon and nearly half a decade of bloody conflict, it's easy to see the corrosive disappointment - on both sides - at the failure of Oslo. There were the waves of suicide bombers against Israelis and the deaths during the Israeli incursions into the Palestinian territories.

In the words of Daniel Levy - with Yossi Beilin one of the architects of the 2003 Geneva initiative, the last true Israeli-Palestinian attempt to outline a final status solution - it was a case of "once bitten, twice shy". For Palestinians, high hopes of a better economy were crushed by the barrier and the relentless multiplication of closures and checkpoints; for Israel, at least until around 2004, security scarcely improved. "The Palestinians were disillusioned by what they saw as a disingenuous approach by the Israelis," says Mr Levy, "and on the Israeli side we gave up on a Palestinian partner after a very successful campaign to present Arafat as not a partner and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas as too weak."

This was reinforced by the election victory of Hamas - itself helped by the lack of any peace process - and Ehud Olmert's explicit commitment to follow the unilateralist course set by Ariel Sharon. The result was that "peace" - in the sense of a permanent settlement to the conflict - was barely mentioned in the March Israeli election campaign. Yet there is a paradox. Polling figures released yesterday by One Voice, another joint Israeli-Palestinian body committed to a two-state solution, show 65 per cent of both communities believing a final agreement is impossible within the next four years. But other recent polling shows that a majority of both publics would support a negotiated two-state solution.

The question is whether the majority in the latter poll can be mobilised to confound the low expectations in the former. Mr Levy believes the Israeli peace camp should not repeat its "mistake" during last summer's disengagement from Gaza of unequivocally backing further West Bank withdrawals by Mr Olmert without at the same time challenging him to embark on real negotiations.

But what of Hamas's doctrinal commitment to eliminating Israel? No one is soberer in appreciating the obstacles to a change in Hamas's stance than Yasser Abed Rabbo, the chief architect of Geneva on the Palestinian side. But like Mr Levy he sees real significance in the recent document produced by the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and a group of Hamas fellow prisoners recommending that Mr Abbas be authorised to negotiate a two-state agreement on 1967 borders. "This is a real embarrassment to Hamas," says Mr Abed Rabbo. The leadership cannot oppose it outright - the prisoners are idols of the people; no-one can accuse them of being capitulationists."

Which may help the Palestinian "national dialogue" aimed at a two-state negotiating stance, which Mr Abed Rabbo and others are promoting, and in which Hamas would commit to abide by a referendum on the outcome of any negotiations. Mr Levy agrees that such a "working cohabitation" between Abbas and Hamas would also enhance the prospects for negotiations. Some, he says, want negotiations with Mr Abbas merely to isolate Hamas further. "I am much more interested in an Abbas who can bring Hamas to the table."