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In sun-bleached West Bank, even whispered hopes for peace wither

In the dusty, sun-bleached Arab towns of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where late summer seems merciless and unchanging, a visitor today senses that the mood is one of disappointment, cynicism, and concern.

Even whispered hopes that the Camp David accords will bear fruit seem to have vanished.

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Though the Palestinians are rarely optimistic in this divided, violence-prone land, those contacted in the past two weeks seem uniformly pessimistic because of three major problems:

* The political impasse in Egyptian-Israeli negotiations toward Palestinian autonomy.

* Israeli "security" crackdowns in the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with terrorism directed at West Bank leaders.

* A deteriorating Israeli economy.

Somewhere out in the world of conference tables and salon chairs -- far removed from the winding streets, noisy souks, and hilly olive groves of Israeli-occupied territory -- Egyptian, Israeli, and American diplomats struggle to continue the Camp David peace talks. But this process at times seems only vaguely connected with the lives of West Bankers and Gazans -- the people who will be the ultimate benefactors or victims.

"How far from reality we have come in these autonomy talks," lamented a frustrated Egyptian negotiator shortly after Egypt's President Anwar Sadat ordered the talks suspended Aug. 2 in retaliation for the new Israeli law formalizing the annexation of east Jerusalem.

"We have been meeting and conducting abstract exercises in Alexandria [Egypt] and Herzliya [Israel], and to what end?" he continued. "We have all become great experts on autonomy, but what is that? We are so far from the situation as it relates to the people of Palestine."

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Even so, the autonomy talks had offered the possibility, however slim, of change for the better. Though the talks were openly embraced by few, if any, Palestinians, they did give rise to sub rosa hope in the occupied territories -- and they also fed the endless, impassioned dinner-table arguments that seem to be the daily bread of Arab and Israeli alike.

But with negotiations now suspended, with stepped-up Israeli military activity in the West Bank and southern Lebanon, and with most diplomats awaiting the outcome of the United States presidential election, little hope is evident.

"Your system," complains a young Gazan who romanticizes about what is termed the "liberation struggle" against Israel, but who himself leads a modest, noncombative life, "means a president like Carter is immobilized this year. Political campaigns may be important for you, but for us it is just another delay -- words, no change."

More chilling to local political aspirations have been the Israeli military government's security crackdowns since spring, including the expulsion of two West Bank mayors. Coupled with the terror bombings of two other mayors (the source of which still is unknown), these developments seem to have quashed incipient activism.

"No, it has not made us afraid," asserts one Palestinian intellectual as we talk on a quiet, sunny afternoon. "We are more determined than ever."

But he and others admit that little activity actually remains. "It has been noticeably quiet," says another Palestinian. "Dozens of political figures have been confined to their villages."

Even the argument that occupation has brought an economic silver lining to the territories has been undermined by Israel's hyperinflation. Price increases exceed 100 percent per year, the second-highest rate in the world after Argentina.

This has hurt the 70,000-plus who bring salaries from Israel proper and who have to buy Israeli goods. Those with remittances from the oil states of the Gulf fare better, since they benefit from favorable exchange rates, but they, too, are subject to high prices.

"Politically, in so many ways, it is an impossible situation for us," signs Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, a one-time moderate who seems increasingly embittered.

Mr. Freij says his town is suffering from poor tourism, runaway inflation for essentials such as milk and sugar, and low revenues. At one time, Bethlehem received financial aid from its sister city, Abu Dhabi, but now such aid to the Israeli-occupied territories is administered by the Arab Joint Fund. The mayor says this money has not been forthcoming and that Bethlehem is on the verge of bankruptcy.

"By Christmas," I will be forced to cut back severely on essential services," he predicts.

To many Palestinians, little change is evident since the Camp David peace process began 18 months ago. Armed Israeli soldiers still patrol the streets. Shrouded tanks are carted through the countryside. Cars with blue license plates (Arab) are routinely stopped at checkpoints. Yellow plates (Israeli) are waved through.

Almost every Palestinian one meets has a favorite story about Israeli discrimination and inflexibility, military or kibbutz land grabs, and humiliating searchers at border points. In fairness, however, one remembers that the Israelis live with the threat of Palestinian terrorism and with hostility from adjoining countries.

"We'll relax when they relax," says an Israeli government spokesman. "Look at the context our so-called discrimination comes in. We're in an area with violence all around -- Iran, Syria, Lebanon, the Horn of Africa. There are plenty of repressive Arab regimes. We're only maintaining security, not cutting off people's hands or gunning them down."

Palestinian businessmen, journalists, politicians, and academicians within Israel may differ in ideology, but most agree there is little to be gained by open revolt. Most quickly dismiss bellicose rumblings in the Arab world of a jihad, or holy war, saying Israel will only use such talk to support its embattled public image.

Neither the contacts nor Western, diplomats see a way of reconciling Egyptian , Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian views toward "self-determination" or "autonomy" for the more than 1 million West Bankers and Gazans.

Listen long enough, however, and the political arguments usually come full circle: a glass of hot tea, a sigh, an agreement that friend and foe alike have their own problems, and an admission that although all short-term avenues of solution may be blocked, somewhere, sometime, change is bound to occur.

"What we know is that history demands progress," says an Egyptian journalist."We don't know how it comes in its own time."

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