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Palestinians Hopeful, Skeptical About Peace Conference


Following talks this week with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he believes there is a real possibility of achieving peace with Israel. After the meetings, Israeli and Palestinian leaders said an upcoming peace conference could lead to talks about establishing a Palestinian state. But many ordinary Israelis and Palestinians say they are skeptical much can be accomplished during the conference later this month in Annapolis, Maryland. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Business is brisk at the Princess Jewelry shop just off Manara Square in downtown Ramallah. There is a steady stream of Palestinians coming and going. Most however are not buying, but selling their family jewelry. Many go from shop to shop in Ramallah looking for the best price for long-treasured family heirlooms.

Nihad, who works the counter at Princess Jewelry, says Palestinians are suffering from economic hard times, and with the price of gold reaching record levels these days his shop is doing a brisk business.

"Because of the siege and the closure and there is no work in Israel - also because of the high price of gold these days. I think the situation is worse every day. It becomes worse and worse," he said. "People need money."

Nihad says he hopes the recent visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Ramallah will help ease restrictions that Palestinians face in the West Bank, and lead to progress towards something he says all Palestinians want; an independent state. But he says while he is hopeful, he is also skeptical that Israel will ease its military occupation of the West Bank anytime soon.

Mamoun Attili who documents Israeli restrictions on Palestinians for the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights says most Palestinians who live in the West Bank share that skepticism. He says Condoleezza Rice has made eight trips to the region this year, but restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank in the form of road blocks and checkpoints have gotten worse.

"They are talking about more than 500 blocks, [checkpoints] in the West Bank territory. More than 150 of them have been since April of this year," he said. "I think that if there are no good intentions from the Israeli side related to human-rights issues, like prisoners, roadblocks, the chance to travel from place to place - the economic situation, the money controlled by the Israelis - the customs and other issues if these are not solved immediately, the situation will be more complicated."

Israeli officials say the roadblocks are necessary to prevent Palestinian militants from attacking Israelis. They say once Mr. Abbas' security forces can show they are capable of controlling the militants the checkpoints will be eased.

Palestinian political analyst, Hani al-Masri says the pressure is now on Mr. Abbas, from Israelis and from his fellow Palestinians, who will demand that he return from Annapolis, Maryland with real concessions from the Israelis - something he says few Palestinians believe will happen.

"He must give them a change in their lives; checkpoints, settlements, separation wall and Israeli military aggression must stop," said Al Masri. "There must be a change in the economic situation. There are many things that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] must give the Palestinians from Annapolis. But, the Palestinians do not have much hope because there are many signs that show the Palestinians that Israel is not serious and that the American administration will not try to change the Israeli position."

In his remarks following his meeting with Condoleezza Rice, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, said while he expected negotiations with Israel and the United States to be tough, he said he received encouraging signs from the United States and Israel that Palestinian concerns will be taken seriously. Mr. Abbas also said he was hopeful that a comprehensive peace agreement can be reached with Israel by the end of President Bush's term in office - just more than a year from now.

Now Palestinians will be watching to see if Mr. Abbas' optimism results in real gains at the Annapolis conference. Results that will Improve their everyday lives.

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