Palestinians on the street express apathy about Aqaba

RAMALLAH — Their new prime minister may have been engaged in summitry this week designed to give a boost to the peace process, but Palestinians in the West Bank hardly seemed optimistic about the prospects.

On the road between Ramallah and the West Bank village of Hizmeh on Tuesday morning, several yellow cabs were parked, unable to move: Israeli soldiers had confiscated the keys in an effort to control Palestinian movement in the region.

A curfew was clamped on Ramallah following intelligence reports that terrorists were on their way to hit Jerusalem. The drivers were not allowed either to continue to their destinations or return to Ramallah.

"Damned be both Sharon and Abu Mazen," cried one driver, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his counterpart in the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. "They are the real terrorists. If it had not been for them, everything would have been much better."

As the driver was talking, long lines of Palestinians made their way on foot to their homes, some located miles away.

President Bush was about to meet Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheik for a summit, and Israel had announced that it intended to relax restrictions on the Palestinians. The following day, Bush, Sharon and Abbas were scheduled to meet in Aqaba, Jordan — yet ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank said they couldn't feel a difference.

"Sharon cannot change his coat," said Khamis Abu Ramila, a member of the citizens committee in the village of Kfar Aqab. "He has spent the greater part of his life building settlements; do you really believe that he will be able to tear to pieces his life project? That would mean admitting that he has erred throughout his life."

Only for a brief while did the city awaken, as a motorcade passed from the southern checkpost to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the heart of the city. The motorcade was carrying the eldest Palestinian security prisoner, released by Israel Tuesday in a goodwill gesture toward the Palestinians and Americans — one that seemed to earn Israel little good will.

The only ray of light, as far as the Palestinians were concerned, was the release Tuesday of some 100 prisoners, among them Ahmad Jabara, who had served 27 years in prison for placing a booby-trapped refrigerator in Jerusalem, killing 14 Israelis and wounding dozens.

Jabara, 68, was the longest serving Palestinian prisoner. Abbas specifically had requested his release and Sharon had consented, though Jabara fell into the category of prisoners "with blood on their hands" whom Israel has been refusing to free.

As Jabara headed toward Ramallah for a warm personal welcome from Arafat, the cab drivers stuck on the road to Hizmeh suddenly turned on their cars and sped away over the hilly terrain, taking advantage of the fact that the army patrol was no longer there — even though the soldiers had kept the keys.

Only one driver was left behind.

"I forgot to carry a spare key,'' he explained.