Donald Macintyre
The Independent
December 3, 2007 - 4:20pm

Wael Mansour watched the Annapolis conference on al-Arabiya television last week in the barely furnished three-room Gaza home he shares with his wife, mother and five children. Did he think the proceedings – intended to clinch the start of a year of peace negotiations – will do any good? "Inshallah [God willing]," said Mr Mansour, 32. "I hope to get out of what we are in. We are in deep trouble."

The "deep trouble" for the Mansours began in June, when Hamas seized power in Gaza after bloody factional fighting with Fatah, and Israel closed the Karni cargo crossing in response. Hundreds of factories in Gaza immediately shut down, laying off 25,000 workers. Not only did he and his brother Sohail lose their £190-a-month salaries, but prices climbed sharply because of the border closure. A can of powdered milk for children has gone up from 14 shekels [£1.80] to 27 [£3.50], they point out.

The Mansours were poor even when they had work. But Wael says the family could eat meat or chicken four days a week, and fish on the other three; now they have a little meat on only one day, with rice and lentils the rest of the time. "When we got paid, we would take the kids to the Lunar Park or go out to eat shwarma or kebab," Wael says. Last month, however, they couldn't even celebrate his son Khaled's fifth birthday, let alone buy the calcium supplements the boy needs.

Surprisingly, Wael still pronounces himself "optimistic" after Annapolis. Gaza's future is far from certain, even if the coming year of talks were to succeed where Camp David failed seven years ago, and agree the basis of a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No one in the West has yet convincingly explained how Hamas – deliberately excluded from, and opposed to, the negotiations – can be dislodged from its control of Gaza.

The Mansour family is strongly pro-Fatah. Wael took part in the Fatah-organised commemoration of Yasser Arafat's death last month which ended in the shooting of seven demonstrators by Hamas security forces. They tend to blame their plight on Hamas for refusing to assent to the demands of Israel and the international community as a price for lifting the draconian blockade, which Israel justifies in part by pointing to continuing rocket fire from Gaza. Expressing what he and his brother insist are now majority views in Gaza, Wael says: "Hamas are not accepting anything." Asked who would lead a popular revolt against the Islamic faction, he says: "Hunger, starvation, not one person, will lead it."

That sentiment, however desperate, may be music to the ears of some in the West. But it is by no means universal, even outside Hamas's core constituency. "I am not optimistic at all," said Ahmed Mahmoud, 28, a university graduate who works as a waiter. "These talks are not going to solve anything. Israel has never kept its promises." Nor does he blame Hamas. "They were never given a chance. How can Hamas help anyone work under this siege?"

Many Palestinians unaffiliated to either faction want Hamas to reopen the co-operation talks with Fatah. While insisting that Hamas wanted this too, Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to the faction, insisted last week it was an illusion for the West to think that starvation would force the Palestinians in Gaza to "surrender". Less predictably, John Ging, director of UN aid operations in Gaza, warned 10 days ago that the ever-deepening privations being visited on the Strip were nourishing extremism.

Hamas-controlled Gaza is only one problem confronting the talks. Another, of course, is the strong right-wing opposition in Israel to any of the concessions that the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, would need to make to get an agreement with Mr Abbas. At a minimum, these would include the West Bank borders of a future Palestinian state and Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

The omens are even less promising than they were for Camp David seven years ago. But there is perhaps one pressure in the opposite direction that didn't exist to the same extent in 2000: an increasing, if barely articulated, belief that this could be the last chance for a two-state deal. Last week Mr Olmert fuelled that impression by raising the spectre of apartheid South Africa, hinting that the disastrous alternative for Israel's long-term future would be a struggle by Palestinians for equal rights in a single state.

Either way, Wael Mansour is hoping against hope that Annapolis will work. "Both sides are tired now. If the talks don't succeed, they will both be in trouble."


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