Palestinians are not impressed by these peace talks


Shops in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, already display posters ahead of Pope Francis's visit in May.


Thomas Coex

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Given the disastrous course of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last week, you’d think Palestinians in Bethlehem would be on edge, even tense.

But over the weekend, those willing to be dragged into conversation about prospects for peace just seemed fed up, expressing deep disenchantment with leaders of all stripes.

Bethlehem will be hosting the second annual Palestine Marathon next Friday, and the city is adorned with its vibrant red posters. Some shops are already gussying themselves up in anticipation of Pope Francis's visit, scheduled for May 25. On Saturday, the city bustled with locals and weekend visitors from around Palestine and Israel.

At Bonjour, a popular café next to Bethlehem University, Saliba Liddawi, a 29-year-old security systems analyst and a Jerusalemite, was enjoying a late lunch with two friends, both accountants named Nancy.

"They are crazy," he said of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas. "Both of them."

Nancy Kiritco, 24, also from Jerusalem, intervened to say "I don't follow news. It just gives me a big headache."

Still in their twenties, none of the three could remember life before the Oslo peace accords, which were signed in 1993 and for the first time granted Palestinians a national governing authority. 

"People are just looking to live their lives, nothing else,” Kiritco continued. “Work, life, clothing — they want to feed their children and feel safe. Everything is expensive and salaries are not good either in Israel or in Palestine."

In Bethlehem's market, Islam Salhab, a 30-year-old shop-owner, said that "both leaders are doing everything they can to destroy peace. I think it will never be." If it ever comes about, he said, it will happen "only if a single state is formed."

Modi Sobek, his friend, disagreed, saying "we need two states to make everyone feel safe from the other."

"The Second Intifada destroyed everything," Sobek said about the popular uprising that lasted for most of the first half of the 2000s, and left a toll of some 4,000 dead on both sides of the divide. 

"Before 2000, Israelis and Palestinians lived together."

"People hate the intifada. It was so hard — also for Israelis," Salhab interjected.

"Every single Palestinian family has someone missing," Sobek said, "dead or jailed or someone who left and just didn't want to come back."

Both young men have academic degrees, yet neither has been able to find work in his profession.

Sobek works as a housekeeper in a Bethlehem hotel. "People are poor," he explains. "Many can't put food on the table. If there will be another intifada, it will be against the [Palestinian] government because we pay taxes but the government gives us nothing back."

"Abbas and John Kerry are talking about something," he said, "but they are not talking about anything real. They know nothing about the real lives of Palestinians. Yes, even Abbas. He lives in a palace in Ramallah."

Though the distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is about six miles, neither Sobek nor Salhab has ever met an Israeli.

Such is not the case for Murad Ali-Saada, 28, a Hebron gold merchant spending the day with friends in Bethlehem. When permits and checkpoints allow, he occasionally travels to Jerusalem for business. "Nobody like politics," he announced. "I'd like everyone to live safely, in peace, but to be honest for now I think it is just too hard. It will take time."

Sual Tani, 60, a Nazarene cab driver and an Israeli citizen, sat on a stoop waiting with some impatience for his wife to complete her shopping for the day. His Hebrew, he said, was better than his Arabic, the result of working in the seaside town of Nahariya for many years.

He shares the generalized disdain for politicians. "We small people, we all get along. People have mutual respect and no problems. It’s the big people…" he trailed off, gesturing aimlessly with his arms.

Clad entirely in black, Sister Alexandrine, 70, the principal of Rosary Sisters School, rushed by with bags of groceries. "They are all the same," she sighed, about Netanyahu and Abbas. "They all want peace but no one is working for peace."

But some voices stood out from the general ennui. Saleh Shokeh, 50, spent Saturday, as most days, in his shop, selling everything from Western-style men's suits to elaborately embroidered Palestinian gowns. He belongs to the extremist Islamic movement Hamas and is a former member of Bethlehem's city council.

"You know what we think of the peace process," he said, smiling. "We don't think there is any point in this."

He has been in Israeli jail some seven times, in Palestinian jails thrice. He laughs, "I love them both because they are the same," he says, of Netanyahu and Abbas.

He is not one for compromise.

Israelis, he says, do not belong to this land. "We don't want them to exist on our land. Some came from Europe, some from other countries. They can go back. But always, there was Palestine. We should have our rights and our country. If a Jew wants to live here, ok, but under our authority."