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RAMALLAH, West Bank — After months of relentless diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators began meeting in August at an undisclosed location in Jerusalem for the latest round of peace talks. But by the time Kerry persuaded leaders on both sides to sit down for direct talks — the first since 2010 — many Palestinians had already expressed their exasperation with a process they call futile.
In one recent poll, only 25 percent of Palestinians between the ages of 18 and 30 said they were more hopeful about the peace process now than a year ago, while 48 percent opposed even a renewal of negotiations. In June, another poll showed that 56 percent of Palestinians opposed a return to talks unless Israel first agreed to preconditions, most importantly a freeze on settlements in territories it has occupied since the 1967 war.
The talks are the latest attempt to complete the 1993 Oslo Peace Process. At the time, there were approximately 257,700 Israeli settlers living in occupied territories; today, there are nearly twice that number.
"Twenty years of negotiations have proved that the peace process is a failed and doomed experiment," said Hazem Abu Hilal, a youth activist working for a nongovernmental organization. "Going back to talks is a cover for settlements to expand, which is what’s happening on the ground as both sides meet."
Even Palestinian negotiators said as much in mid-August, when Israel announced it was approving the construction of 900 housing units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. This came on the heels of a plan for approximately 1,200 units and, before that, another 900 throughout the West Bank, including the Holy City. The United Nations and much of the world considers the settlements illegal under international law.
"Israel continues to use peace negotiations as a smoke screen for more settlement construction," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior Fatah official and one of the leading negotiators. "(The Israelis) are the only ones imposing conditions: to negotiate with settlement construction, creating new conditions on the ground in order to pre-empt the result of any negotiations."
Many Palestinians seem to agree, saying the peace process is merely a diversion from the consequences of Israel’s military grip on the Palestinian territories. "The only party to benefit from the process itself is Israel as it further entrenches itself (in the territories)," said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business consultant in Ramallah who writes frequently about Palestine. "The process gives the facade of positive movement, whereas the reality on the ground is that the occupation is becoming fiercer by the day."
Israel's settlement authorizations often seem to coincide with any attempt to restart talks. Three years ago, when Vice President Joe Biden visited the region, Israel announced it was approving 1,000 settlement units. A year later, as Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, met with President Barack Obama, Israeli authorities rubber-stamped a plan to expand settlements in the southern part of East Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank.
It's difficult to take the peace process seriously, say some observers, when even Israel’s goodwill gestures have proved to be largely empty. Most recently, Israeli authorities released 26 Palestinian detainees ahead of the talks in Jerusalem. Israel said the prisoner release was a bitter pill, but a necessary one to resuscitate the moribund peace process.
But Palestinian politicians and prisoner-support groups said the detainees, many of whom have been imprisoned since before the Oslo Accords, were originally scheduled for release in 1999 under the terms of a previous agreement. Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners' rights group, said most of those released had already served out the bulk of their sentences. (Two were scheduled for release within six months, another nine within three years.) The prisoners, Addameer said, were "used as 'bargaining chips' by the Israeli government to subdue the Palestinian and international community in order to continue negotiations."
In the past, the group said, prisoner releases have been offset by mass arrests. Israel released 429 prisoners in 2007 and 770 in 2008, within the framework of the Annapolis, Md. peace talks. In the same period, 4,945 Palestinians were arrested — nearly three times as many as those released.
Other observers say there are additional complicating factors, among them the political instability of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and a weakened Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PA — the interim government set up under Oslo to administer the West Bank and Gaza until a comprehensive peace is reached — is caught between the needs of a constituency disillusioned with a metastasizing occupation and the demands of an American administration. The PLO, which since 1974 has been designated by the UN and the Arab League as the sole entity that can negotiate on behalf of Palestinians in peace agreements, has lost authority, too; Fatah, the ruling party of PA president Mahmoud Abbas, continues to govern the West Bank, while Hamas, which doesn’t belong to the PLO, rules the Gaza Strip.
This raises questions about whether the PA can muster enough popular support to reach a final-status agreement. "The PA gets its legitimacy from the PLO, which has become an empty institution," said Ala Al Azzeh, who teaches at Birzeit University, just outside of Ramallah. "Elections for the PLO's executive committee haven’t been held in years and the important job of the PA has become maintaining quiet on the Palestinian street."
Fatah and Hamas are nowhere near establishing a consensus on whether to embark on these new talks, let alone the bigger question of how to deal with Israel's occupation. While Hamas expressed its dismay at the rekindled talks, even going so far as to say that Abbas lacks the mandate to negotiate on Palestinians' behalf, some leftist PLO factions called for an outright halt to the talks.
As it stands, Hamas's absence at the negotiating table undermines the legitimacy of the talks. If the group refuses to negotiate with Israel under the current conditions, it’s unclear if Fatah will have sufficient clout to address crucial issues such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees over the long term. Hamas and Fatah have been trying to bridge the chasm between them on and off since 2008, mostly under Egyptian mediation, sometimes with Qatari help. But none of the efforts have so far produced any meaningful reconciliation.
"We need a strategy that can unify all Palestinians," said Abu Hilal, the youth activist. "Instead of going back to negotiations, we need to focus on holding elections for the Palestinian National Council (the legislative body of the PLO) and rebuilding the PLO so it can once again be the sole representative of the Palestinian people."
Palestinians’ disillusionment with their leadership was reinforced when talks continued following popular protests over the killing on Aug. 25 of three Palestinians during a dawn raid of a refugee camp by Israeli forces.
Another sticking point for many Palestinians is the current Israeli government, led by a right-wing coalition and headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly endorses settlement expansion and has even rejected the internationally accepted basis for territorial negotiations known as the 1967 borders. During the first half of 2013, under his leadership, population in the settlements grew by 2.1 percent compared with an annual population growth of 1.8 percent in Israel proper.
Today, half a million Israelis live in settlements sprinkled across the Green Line, on hilly terrain overlooking 2.5 million Palestinians' homes. Jewish settlement in the Holy Basin — the area around the Old City of Jerusalem — has also increased exponentially, with ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes and takeovers by Jewish Israeli tenants.
"With each settlement expansion announcement, the right-wing Israeli government is actually trying to make a political statement that the two-state solution is over," said Bahour. "Multiple ministers have publicly stated that in the past several months."
In June, Israel's deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, said the government would block any two-state deal. Similarly, Naftali Bennett, the economy and trade minister, said Israel should annex large parts of the West Bank and called the idea of a Palestinian state "hopeless."
Disappointing to Palestinians, too, is the familiar cast of characters leading the new talks, which are slated to take place over the next nine months.
"With the same players, I don't see how this process can result in what it was intended to do, which is to reach a final-status agreement," Bahour said. "The appointment of (US special envoy Martin) Indyk adds insult to injury to the Palestinian side, especially since he is a known commodity in this process and was part of the failure throughout this entire period."
Sitting beside an outdoor pool and restaurant he runs in Ramallah, Fajr Harb called Indyk's appointment a "nonstarter." With Indyk, he said, "you’ve destroyed any possibility of real peace, especially because of his part in the failed Camp David peace talks many years ago."
Harb also expressed deep skepticism about the US role in the talks. Like many Palestinians, he believes Washington has not pushed Israel to make necessary concessions.
"The negotiations are a PR stunt for the Americans," Harb said. "The region can’t be controlled anymore, and this particular conflict is the easiest, as far as they're concerned, to manage and (one) which they can use to flex their muscles."