Impotent Palestinians furious that President could legitimise settlements

Palestinians reacted with fury last night to President George Bush's endorsement of Israel retaining occupied Arab land as they predicted the final collapse of the Middle East peace process.

Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, said in Ramallah: "He is the first president who has legitimised the [Israeli] settlements in Palestinian territories. We as Palestinians reject that. We cannot accept that. We reject it and we refuse it."

He called on the Quartet that stands behind the "road-map" for Middle East peace - the US, European Union, Russia and the UN - to call an international conference on the "neglect of Palestinian rights".

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, anticipated Mr Bush's reaction to the plan from the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as "the complete end of the peace process".

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian cabinet minister, described Mr Bush's statement as "like someone giving a part of Texas's land to China".

The Palestinian Authority had threatened to end all its commitments to signed accords if the US administration backed Mr Sharon's demands attached to his disengagement plan.

But in reality the Palestinian influence is very limited and the PA now seems powerless to prevent the Israeli plan from going ahead. The Palestinians have only words and threats, such as warning of a new cycle of violence and predicting the demise of the peace process, which has been repeated over and over.

Representatives of Palestine Liberation Organisation factions held several meetings with Islamic Jihad and Hamas representatives in Gaza in an attempt to work out a plan for controlling Gaza following any withdrawal by the Israeli army.

But Ali al-Gerbawi, a Palestinian analyst and political science professor at Birzeit University, was critical of the short-sighted approach. "Some Palestinians believe that they have been forcing Sharon out of Gaza: in fact, they have lost the West Bank,'' he said.

Professor Gerbawi said the Palestinian Authority had lost its power to manoeuvre. "They can only speak with [Hosni] Mubarak [of Egypt], and with King Abdullah [of Jordan] to get some influence on the US administration. The influence of Mubarak and Abdullah is very limited. It is almost non existent. Who can stop Sharon from building the wall. He is building it and he will continue to build it."

Another analyst, Yosri Khaizeran, at the Hebrew University, also blamed the PA's ineffectiveness on the divisions among Palestinians and the absence of a united strategy. He said: "Sharon is trying to force the Palestinians to make major political compromises in return for offering them a normal life."