Envoy Blair welcomes Palestinian 'progress' during first walkabout

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The Independent Online

Having seen the British come and go once before in his long life, Hassan Sweid was unfazed by the sudden descent of an ex-prime minister of the United Kingdom into his tiny workshop in the heart of Nablus's old city yesterday. Lacking the immediate services of a translator, Mr Sweid, 75, politely told the international Middle East envoy Tony Blair only: "I am a tailor."

But as the Blair caravan walked on through the alley, Mr Sweid, who was a high school student when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time at the end of the British mandate 60 years ago, was uncompromising about what he might have said if there had been more opportunity.

"We have been under aggression from the time of the British until now. But then we were men fighting colonialism. Now we are women. They [Israel] rule us with fire and iron."

Mr Blair's visit to the old city – the past scene of near-nightly Israeli incursions and some of the most lethal fighting of the past seven years – was his first encounter with the Palestinian street in the raw since his appointment last year, and not everyone was as reticent with him as Mr Sweid had been.

Video stall owner, Saleh Taqtaq, 43, who also does a brisk trade in key rings bearing "martyr" portraits of Palestinians killed in the conflict, told him: "Look at these pictures. They were slaughtered by the Jews. Are there terrorists here, when you are walking freely down our streets?"

Unwittingly, Mr Taqtaq was touching on a key reason for Mr Blair's visit yesterday – namely the deployment of hundreds of Palestinian security forces here late last year by the Ramallah-based Prime Minister Salam Fayad to reverse the modern reputation of Nablus – once the West Bank's flourishing economic capital – as one of its most lawless as well as militant cities.

After talks with the Nablus Governor Jamal Muheisein, Mr Blair pointed that his very presence was an indication of the improved security the Palestinians are obliged to provide under phase one of the road map.

"I think it is important to recognise that what has happened here in Nablus over these past few months is, of course, precisely what phase one of the road map asks for," he said.

It was therefore "important" for there to be a response by Israel "not only" in removing Jewish settlement outposts, as it is also obliged to do under the road map, but "in time" lifting restrictions on Palestinian movement and access.

Mr Blair, who made a point of seeing at first hand the Hawara checkpoint – one of the most hated in the West Bank by Palestinians – warned that this would not happen "overnight" but needed to do so "bit by bit".

As Israeli officials cited Monday's suicide bombing in Dimona, that produced a cool response from the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. His spokesman. Mark Regev said: "We agree that the PA (Palestinian Authority) has started to move on implementing obligations under the road map, but obviously much more still has to be done."

Mr Blair's view of the changes was strongly reinforced yesterday by shopkeepers in and around the casbah who said that security had considerably improved with gunmen no longer roaming the streets.

Menswear shop owner Hussein Masri said: "We don't have shooting all the time any more. The fighters have surrendered their arms so I don't know why the Israeli forces keep coming into the city at night. Maybe not all the fighters have given up their arms but I don't know."

But equally, most complained that while security had sharply improved, the economy – a key issue on Mr Blair's agenda – had not.

Hassan Akr, 32, whom Mr Masri pays $400 per month to sell clothes, said: "I can't afford to get married, I can't get a house.

"I would try to go to the United States but I can't leave my parents alone."

Like his boss, Mr Akr was sceptical about Mr Blair's capacity to bring change. "I don't believe there will be peace. I don't think Israel wants peace and I think the negotiations will fail."

At an olive oil soap factory – one of only two compared with 35 before the Six Day War – Mr Blair wrapped and glued a bar of the historically prized product with some efficiency. He was told by the manager Yael Qubbaj that "checkpoints, incursions and closures" had halved its annual production to 300 tons since the beginning of the intifada in 2000.

The 130-year-old factory, which employs 21 people, is only kept going by the generosity of its wealthy Abu Dhabi-based Palestinian owner, Farouk Tuqan. Mr Qubbaj said the closures had hit both imports of raw materials and exports of the finished product.

Doubts about the vital security role of the Hawara checkpoint were reinforced by the fact that it was possible to avoid it on the way out of the city yesterday by taking a lengthy 12-mile ride in a Palestinian taxi on country dirt roads.

Mr Blair's appearance before Nablus's small but proactive Palestinian press corps yesterday was preceded by a lengthy argument between the city's photographers over the ideal background against which to portray him.

Pictures of both Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas were eventually hoisted on to the red curtain behind the podium. A suggestion by one pressman that a third portrait of the de facto Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, be added, was not taken up, sparing the envoy undoubted embarrassment.

And the widespread scepticism that Mr Blair could succeed where a queue of envoys had failed before him was tempered by traditional Palestinian hospitality.

Despite confessing later that business was "very bad", sweet shop owner Ghazi Sweilem, 67, was deeply reluctant to accept the 50 shekels pressed on him by an aide to Mr Blair for the kilo of halkom bought by the envoy.

"He is our guest," he said. "He should not be paying."

Would Mr Blair's mission succeed? "Inshallah," he replied. God willing.

The route that leads to Palestinian statehood

When Tony Blair talks about the "road map", he has a particular one in mind. For the past seven months he has been the envoy of the Middle East Quartet, the international coalition grouping the US, Russia, UN and EU – the guarantor of the so-called "road map" for peace.

Despite the fact that the strict timeline set by the group went out of the window soon after the Quartet's founding document was issued, in September 2002, the road map set out concrete steps by both Israelis and Palestinians in order to achieve a permanent two-state solution.

It remains the only strategy leading towards statehood for the Palestinians – the only formula fully endorsed by the international community, although it has evolved over time.

Even now, both sides have stumbled on the first step, with the Israelis calling on the Palestinians to heed the document's provisions on ending terrorism, while the Palestinians are urging the Israelis to halt Jewish settlement construction, in line with the Quartet demands.

Phase II provides for a transition to a Palestinian state with provisional borders, while Phase III crowns the process with permanent status agreement and a second international conference that would reach agreement on the most tricky core issues including the right of return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Mr Blair was given a strictly defined role by the Quartet, focusing on bolstering the Palestinian economy, governance and security. The Quartet has endorsed the results of last November's Annapolis meeting in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to resume talks with a view to concluding a peace deal by the end of this year: before George Bush leaves office.

Anne Penketh