Palestinian rights activist says violence is almost inevitable

Ask the average Palestinian in Gaza or the West Bank how the victory of Israeli Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu affects his life and he will most likely say, "It can't get any worse than it is."

That view seems to directly contradict news reports that showed nearly 98 percent of the Arab electorate voting for Shimon Peres. But Raji Sourani, founder of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the 1990 winner of the Robert Kennedy Peace Prize, contends it is nonetheless accurate.

Although support for Peres dropped among Israel's 440,000 eligible Arab voters in the weeks following the Lebanon attack, exit polls showed that most Palestinians viewed Peres as the lesser of two evils.

But Sourani insists Palestinians do not support Peres. Peres was no friend to the Palestinians, so Netanyahu "could not be any worse," he said during an interview last week.

"Conceptually there is no major difference between the two," said Sourani, whose trip to the Bay Area last week was sponsored by the Middle East Children's Alliance and the American Friends Service Committee. "It's more rhetoric than daily practice."

Sourani seemed more interested in discussing the ways Israel has erred in the peace process than in discussing its future under Netanyahu's leadership. Regarding the elections, he only said, "Rabin was killed [again]. This is the collective decision of the Israelis."

He conceded that it is important for Israelis to "reflect upon their new self [under Netanyahu's leadership]. But they need to decide if they want to talk about a new Middle East. A new environment. A new economy."

Beginning with Oslo I, "the whole agreement from my perspective is bad," he said.

Sourani points to four issues that remain unaddressed and thus cement the conflict: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and self-determination.

Because of this gridlock, "there's no freedom of movement. There are no human rights. There is no peace in day-to-day life," Sourani said. He added that most Palestinians no longer support the peace process and thus "are becoming careless in terrorist situations.

"Everything is possible of these people who feel there is nothing to lose. We have to expect the worst," he said. "Violence is almost inevitable."

The only way to halt potential aggression is to allow the Palestinians autonomy, he said.

"If we're talking about peace, the cornerstone is the Palestinians. If you don't [give] them power, they can't handle things, and the situation will be out of control. And we can't blame the Palestinian Authority for that," Sourani said.

"But blame isn't really important," he added. Instead, "we need to make sure suicide bombers don't carry on their mission. To do that we need to change the environment and the quality of life, and then ordinary citizens will be the safeguards of peace."

Meanwhile, Sourani calls Israel "the master of the game," and claims there is "total imbalance of power" in the peace talks. He suggests that the Palestinians have made enough concessions and it is up to Israel to move out of the territories and allow for self-determination.

He said that 30 years ago, peace-seekers all over the world were waiting for the PLO to "quit terrorist activities. Well, they gave it up," Sourani said. "So the message now is `What are the Israelis doing for peace?'"