BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank - When we reached the military checkpoint June 30 on our way from Jerusalem to this Palestinian town, the Israeli soldier waved us through without stopping.
We were lucky. Traffic in the opposite direction was moving at a snail's pace - trucks, buses, cars, bicycles and scores of pedestrians, some of them Palestinian women in their ankle-length brocaded dresses carrying large bundles on their heads. They were waiting in the blazing sun and dust for clearance to travel into Jerusalem to their jobs or to the market.
During my 10-day visit to Israel, I crossed border checkpoints into Ramallah, Beit Sahour and Bethlehem in the West Bank repeatedly. Every time it was a reminder of Israel's "closure" policy which seeks to isolate the Palestinian people and strangle them economically.
It goes hand-in-hand with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy of annexation of most of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Syria's Golan Heights, Arab territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 "Six Day War."
People's Weekly World Middle East correspondent Hans Lebrecht, who served as my chauffeur, guide and interpreter during the stay, stopped just outside Beit Sahour for me to take some photos. He pointed to a building. Someone had neatly stenciled on the wall a hammer and sickle and underneath, in flowing Arabic, "Workers of the world, unite!"
Like most villages, Beit Sahour is built on the summit of an arid, sunbaked hill, with domes and minarets rising into the sky. Olive groves cling to the steep, rocky, eroded hillsides below. Beit Sahour, "Shepherd's Field" is adjacent to Bethlehem. The towns, with a combined population of 55,000, are 80 percent Christian.
We were welcomed to Beit Sahour town hall by Deputy Mayor Adullah Rishmawi. He introduced us to Awadallah Shaibat and his sons Tal'at Shaibat and Ibrahim Shaibat. The two young men are veterans of the Intifada, the mass uprising in which Palestinian youth armed with the plentiful stones of Palestine, battled heavily armed Israeli troops-- David vs. Goliath.
"Every street was a battleground," Rishmawi said. "The Israeli troops took some people and beat or shot them. But we struggled hard. Most of our young men were imprisoned at one time or another." The Intifada forced Israel to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization and begin the peace process, Rishmawi said. It was a turning point he struggled a lifetime to achieve.
"I was imprisoned for eight years at Jafr, an internment camp in the desert near Saudi Arabia," he said. "All the Communists were there. Hundreds of us. We didn't see our families." There were no trials. It was 'administrative detention.'"
Rishmawi said, "The Israelis are still putting us in jail under that British law. I was first elected to office while I was still in prison."
The Palestinian people greeted with joy the first victories of the peace process. "After the peace agreements, we were optimistic, we could start factories, build housing, develop our agriculture, our schools."
Now, he said, the economy in the West Bank and Gaza is actually worse than before the peace process started.
"Investment is impossible in the current atmosphere. Jerusalem is only 10 minutes away, but because of the Israeli closure, it takes hours."
In less than three years, millions of Christian pilgrims are expected to arrive in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour to celebrate the third millennium of the birth of Jesus.
"We have a steering committee that is meeting to plan 'Project 2000.' We had promises of assistance from Italy, Germany. We have plans to build hotels. But we have received no money," he said.
"The Oslo Agreement states that all the Palestinian refugees are to be released from the camps and return to their homes. But that promise too is unfulfilled."
He led me to a window with a view out across the valley toward East Jerusalem. "See that hill there? We call it Jebl Abu Ghneim. It is only two kilometers from here. Israel wants to build a settlement there. They call it Har Homa. It belongs to us!" he said, his voice rising in anger. "I can't answer what will happen if they try to proceed. It is not right."
Twice the United States vetoed resolutions condemning the settlement. "Clinton always appears on the side of the Israeli aggressors," he said. "It would be very useful if the American people would demonstrate in front of the United Nations to demand that the peace agreements and the U.N. resolutions be implemented."
Rishmawi hailed the growing strength of joint Israeli-Palestinian peace protests. "We have special relations with them," he said.
"During the most active time, about 60 people came here from Israel and slept in our homes, ate with us, joined in our protests against the settlement on Jebl Abu Ghneim. Our only wish is that the peace movement be bigger so that we can push peace to the front."
A few days after, we drove to East Jerusalem. Hans pointed out the spanking new Israeli settlements, always built on high ground, often surrounded by fortress-like walls.
This is a key element of Israeli expansionist plans to annex majority Arab East Jerusalem despite Palestinian aspirations that it become the capital of their state.
Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, served as a Palestinian diplomat in Washington and Madrid, helping fashion the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.
"What we agreed to has not been implemented, especially the schedule of Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands," he said. "The Netanyahu government is not willing to implement it."
According to the Oslo Accords, the so-called "final status" talks should have started months ago. It is to cover a host of crucial details, everything from the status of Jerusalem to the sharing of the region's precious water.
"While they are stalling, they are 'creating facts on the ground.' The Israeli settlements on our territory are a clear attempt to prejudice and preempt the outcome of the final status negotiations," Khatib charged.
"If the final status of Jerusalem is to be negotiated, then Israel should not unilaterally build settlements to preempt a just solution."
I asked him about a joint demonstration of more than 1,000 Palestinians and Israelis in mid-June initiated by Israeli and a Palestinian women's organizations. They marched behind a banner in Hebrew and Arabic that proclaimed, "Jerusalem is an undivided city and the capital of two states - Israel and Palestine."
"Demonstrations like this are important and useful," Khatib replied. "Now is the time for the peace forces in Israel to resist these crazy policies of Netanyahu."
The key factor is the American attitude, he said. "We see Israel escaping its responsibilities. We don't see the United States using its leverage to guarantee Israeli adherence to the agreements they signed."
It becomes ever more difficult to negotiate with Netanyahu, he said. "The deeper Netanyahu's crisis, the more dependent he is on the most extreme right-wing elements in Israel, like Ariel Sharon. That is why pressure from the international community is so crucial to breaking the deadlock. And we don't see it happening."
That afternoon, we drove to Ramallah, administration headquarters of the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, we passed a large compound enclosed by a wall with a U.N. flag fluttering overhead.
"It's a Palestinian refugee camp," Lebrecht told me. "There are an estimated four million Palestinians still living in these camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan."
Some camps, he said, have existed since 1948 - nearly 50 years. Generations of Palestinians have had only these camps to call home.
Minutes later, we rolled through another Israeli military checkpoint. "Now we are in liberated Palestine," Lebrecht said. "This is territory under the Palestinian National Authority."
The refugees languishing in that camp, a mile from this checkpoint, must say to themselves, "So near, yet so far."
Their exile in their own land could come to an end if the peace forces of the world mobilize pressure on the U.S. and Israel to honor their commitments.
It is also the only way to cheat the terrorists on both sides - whether the extremist Israeli who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin or the Hamas terrorists who killed scores of Jews and Arabs in a bombing attack in Jerusalem last week - who are determined to destroy the peace process
In Ramallah, the signs of struggle by the people to lay the foundation of an independent state are everywhere. PNA ministries are scattered in buildings throughout the town. There is a rusting radio tower, built by the British during their colonial occupation, now the "voice" of the Palestinian people. The red, green and black Palestinian banner flew from many buildings.
Suleiman Al-Najab, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, welcomed us. He represents the Palestinian People's Party (PPP), formerly the Palestinian Communist Party, on the executive committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
His office commands a sweeping view of the city high in the Samarian Mountains with cooling breezes from the Mediterranean Sea even during the summer.
He is a genial man even though he spent 19 years in exile, four years in the underground in the West Bank and one year in an Israeli prison where he was brutally tortured.
"The PNA governs under very difficult conditions," he said. "The economy is worse. More than 50 percent of our workers depend on jobs in Israel. They have closed the borders making it impossible for our workers to get to and from work."
Al-Najab said, "We have the Israeli settlements that are a constant provocation. The deadlock in the peace process has created fertile soil for the extremists. This is very dangerous.
In spite of all this, the Palestinian people are still for peace, he said. "They know that the negotiations started at Madrid and Oslo are the only way to finish the occupation and open the way to an independent state." The PPP is active in a newly established movement, "The Committees to Defend the Land" to resist the Israeli settlements.
"We try to mobilize the farmers and tenants against the Israeli bulldozers," he said. "Our PPP comrades played a major role in the general strike in Jerusalem (a stoppage by Palestinian merchants and workers that closed down much of East Jerusalem just before I arrived).
"I can't predict what new forms of resistance will appear," Al-Najab told me. "But the Palestinian people have new forms of struggle within their grasp and one of them is the PNA itself."
He said, "We should use forms of struggle that help the Israeli peace forces mobilize, and not abort those efforts. Terrorist acts are a 'gift from God' for the right-wing forces in Israel."
The U.S. is the only nation that continues to support Netanyahu and his policies. "U.S. support for Israel has plunged this entire region into chaos," he said.
Later, Al-Najab drove us to his family homestead near the village of Jybia.
His father, a forester during British rule, planted thousands of evergreens that have now grown into a forest on the rocky, terraced hills that surround the handsome stone house.
His wife served us strong, sweet coffee. As we said farewell, Al-Najab led us into his garden carved from this dry, rock-strewn land. He cut a bouquet of roses and zinnias and handed them to Hans' wife, Tosca.
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