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Palestinian leader enters bitter fray

Ahmed Qureia accepted the post of Palestinian Authority prime minister Wednesday.

Following two Palestinian suicide attacks that killed 15 Israelis on Tuesday, incoming Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is appealing to Israel to "think seriously how to make peace."

"After you used all your muscle, all your force," he said in brief remarks to reporters Wednesday, addressing himself to Israeli leaders, "I don't think this is the way: the killing of Palestinian people, the collective punishment of Palestinian people."

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Mr. Qureia - one of the founders of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that began in Oslo, Norway, in 1993 - displays an undimmed determination to continue negotiating with Israel. "I am a fighter for peace," he says.

But Palestinians are increasingly disenchanted both with a decade of peace talks and the leadership that has pursued these negotiations.

Their frustration is heightened by their experience of the past four months, when PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, declaring violence against Israel to be a disaster, renewed negotiations in accordance with a US-backed road map toward peace.

Mr. Abbas resigned on Saturday, saying he had been hobbled by Israeli intransigence, a lack of US support for its own plan, and power struggles with PA President Yasser Arafat. Wednesday Qureia accepted Mr. Arafat's nomination that he become Prime Minister, and said he would form an emergency cabinet.

Three exhausting years

Palestinians, tired by the past three years of fighting, were willing to give Abbas a chance, says Palestinian legislator Abdul Jawad Saleh, but "now they say 'the hell with them' - Arafat, [Abbas], the Americans, the Israelis."

Abbas's failure, says pollster Nader Said, a sociologist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, was "the last straw in damaging the relationship between the Authority - the leadership - and the general audience of Palestinians."

The result, according to Professor Said and other Palestinian analysts, will be a political vacuum that will encourage some Palestinians to recommit themselves to a strategy of violence against Israel, others to push harder for elections to replace the Palestinian Authority, and still others simply to endure their situation.

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Hani al-Masri, a former journalist who is now a senior official in the PA Ministry of Information, has devised an unusual method for charting public opinion.

He lives in a cooperatively run apartment building in Ramallah, and every week the building's 22 heads of household meet to manage their affairs - and talk politics.

In July, after Abbas had helped to convince Palestinian groups to agree to a cease-fire, more than half of Mr. Masri's fellow apartment owners said they were against any further suicide attacks against Israelis. At their meeting a little over a week ago, those opposed to such violence had dwindled to Masri and one other person.

Abbas "was so open and so enthusiastic toward the government of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, offering and offering without getting anything in return, and that scared everyone," says Masri.

Struggling for consensus

But Mr. Saleh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) who has expressed his opposition to the PA by agitating for greater democracy and transparency in government activities, says he is not convinced that Palestinians' current frustration with the PA's brand of peace negotiation will translate to renewed support for violence.

"There's no consensus about this. Some [people] are really trying to rethink the whole process," he says. Saleh and other likeminded Palestinians have long favored peaceful mass protest and other forms of civil disobedience as a means of opposing Israeli occupation. Advocates of such measures may now sense an opportunity.

PLC member Hassan Khoreisheh says Qureia must offer Palestinians a choice over how to proceed by holding elections. "The majority of the Palestinian people believe that negotiation is no longer a strategic choice for us," he says. "The Oslo group," referring to Arafat, Abbas, Qureia, and others, "their agenda is no longer acceptable in the streets."

Even senior members of Fatah, the main Palestinian political faction, say that the time has come for the PA to consider drastic action.

"Instead of giving [the Israelis] six months of cease-fire," says Abbas Zaki, a member of the party's central committee, "I would rather say give them six months to solve the conflict or we will dissolve ourselves. They can kill 10,000 or 15,000 more [Palestinians] but the cause will not end; they can't liquidate the cause of Palestine."

On a dusty hillside in the West Bank, Elias Salameh spent part of Wednesday morning moving 21 boxes of frozen meat and salami from one taxi drop-off area to another about 150 yards away to get around a closed Israeli checkpoint.

Because of the threat of suicide attacks, Israel has tightened its closure of the West Bank to prevent militants from entering Israeli towns and cities.

The boxes were heavy - he estimated the total weight at about 650 lbs. - and Mr. Salameh was working up a sweat as he hauled the boxes down the rocky hillside.

Still, he said, "this problem is easier than the Palestinian problem. The Israelis have laws; we have nothing." He went on to detail his frustrations with a PA that he views as corrupt and self-serving.

"Under the current situation," says another man working his way around the checkpoint, a granite worker named Mohammed Abu Alia, "you can't keep hope alive for anything."

"All these years of negotiation," he adds. "It hasn't achieved anything."