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'The Palestinians believe the Oslo accord is just an extended truce'

PLO election cynicism runs rife in the West Bank, writes Patrick Cockburn
Hebron - "The Palestinians only have islands of authority on the West Bank," says Khalid Amayreh, an Islamic writer and commentator in Hebron, as he criticises Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman for mismanaging negotiations with Israel. "We will remain subordinate to the Israelis," he adds. "In their hearts the Palestinians believe the Oslo agreement is just an extended truce."

Cynicism about the first ever Palestinian general election, to be held on 20 January, is greatest in Hebron, the capital of the southern West Bank. Here there has been no Israeli military withdrawal. Troops protecting 400 Israeli settlers in the heart of the city will simply pull back to their barracks on election day.

Local candidates admit that the mood in Hebron is bad. Ali al-Kawasmi, standing for Fatah, the political organisation of Mr Arafat, says: "I think that only 60 per cent will vote in the election, but if the Israelis truly go, then it would be 100 per cent." In the villages, he says, people are more positive about the election, because Israeli soldiers have largely withdrawn.

Unfortunately the election has produced no real debate among Palestinians about what they are getting from the present phase of the Oslo agreement, because the opposition, Islamic and secular, is not taking part. The two main secular opposition parties have put up a joint poster in Hebron which reads: "This election will split the people and split Palestine."

In the villages outside Hebron, however, there are real signs of a transfer of power. In al-Fawwar, a refugee camp housing 7,000 people five miles west of Hebron, we asked a local teacher called Hashem al-Titi what benefits people in the camp had gained from Israeli redeployment. "We don't see any Israeli soldiers," he replied. "We are no longer frightened that they will come in the night and arrest our children."

Other leaders in the camp, which had a tradition of militancy in the Palestinian intifada (uprising), said they did not know what they would get out of the election, but they intended to vote. Sheikh Ibrahim Abu Sal admitted there was a difference among the generations of refugees: "All the old people want to return back to their villages [in Israel], but the younger generation have different ideas."

In the nearby town of Doura, Ibrahim Abu Khalil, a plump police colonel in a blue uniform, had set up the area's first Palestinian police post, and was facing a problem of jurisdiction. He explained that earlier in the day gunmen in a car had fatally wounded Fawzi Mashalmi, 55, as he stood outside his shop in the village of Beit Alla. He bled to death as his family drove him to Doura.

With 70 men, the police in Doura said they were too few to control the area, which has 40,000 people. Despite this, the Palestinian Authority is taking over the rural hinterland of the West Bank, where 68 per cent of the total population live. To sceptics like Mr Amayreh this means little. "I asked a candidate from Fatah what they would do if the Israelis raided Doura, and the answer was 'Nothing'. Arafat's bombastic rhetoric declaring liberated areas does not mean anything." The parties boycotting the election point to the half-built by-pass road cutting a swathe through Palestinian vineyards beside the road to Jerusalem.

The weakness of the opposition is that it ignores the intense relief among most Palestinians in the West Bank at the departure of Israeli troops in December.

There is a genuine feeling that 28 years of occupation are ending. Secondly, Hamas and the secular opposition have never produced an alternative policy to Mr Arafat's, but criticise him for not getting more concessions from Israel in the negotiations since Oslo.

Abstention by opposition parties and lack of clear programmes means that candidates spend their time trying to persuade leaders of clans and extended families to vote for them.