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Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2003/ 26 Adar I, 5763

Richard Z. Chesnoff

Richard Z. Chesnoff
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Palestinian silent majority gets louder

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Something remarkable happened recently in the Holy Land. With battles at a bloody new high, some 20 Palestinians braved terrorist thugs and security clampdowns to travel to Jerusalem to talk peace with 35 of their Israeli neighbors.

"We took gigantic risks to be here because we have messages for Israelis and for our own people," declared 25-year-old Majid Belay, from the Nablus Youth Federation that hails from a West Bank city best known as a center of terrorism. "We want Israelis to know that there are lots of Palestinians who support peace and who you never see in the media."

Not everything was milk and honey when the two sides sat down at the Tantur Ecumenical Center. Loud disputes erupted over politics. But passions were soon tempered by a genuine search for common ground in religious faith - and a burning desire for peace from both the Arabs and Jews present.

All of which underscores something I discovered on a recent visit to Jerusalem. While most of the media fail to talk about it, there is an emerging silent majority of Palestinians. They are fed up with senseless bloodshed and terror, with a no-win uprising and a monumentally corrupt leadership.

The Arafat regime's corruption spreads heavy salt on Palestinian wounds. Multimillions in aid have flowed to the Palestinian Authority in the past 10 years. But most of it has gone into the black hole of thievery - from two-bit bureaucrats who demand bribes to deliver much-needed medical supplies to senior members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's inner circle.

Even Arafat's "ambassadors" are on the take. Palestinian columnist Ali Sadek recently charged that the heads of some of the Palestinian Authority's 86 embassies and representative offices around the world levy illegal fees for consular work - then pocket them. In Bosnia, Ambassador Jamal al-Jardali and his staff were accused of driving around in stolen cars.

"I think about the Arafat gang's Swiss bank accounts," says a Bethlehem businessman who requested anonymity. "Then I think about how our children are being asked to blow themselves up and kill Israeli children, and I know that there has to be a better way to peace."

Some Palestinian pragmatists are willing to take radical stances for peace. Mukhtar Zuheir Hamdan, a leader of Jerusalem's Sur Baher quarter, recently warned Israelis not to divide Jerusalem again and place Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian control - not out of love for Israel, but out of fears of Palestinian terror.

"An Israeli withdrawal [from East Jerusalem] would bring all the gunmen of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Popular Front to Damascus Gate, Mount Scopus and Mount of Olives," according to Hamdan. "They will turn Jerusalem into Gaza."

Sadly, most Palestinians are still too afraid to speak out openly. Little wonder given the case of Khaled Abu Toameh, one of the Palestinian world's finest journalists, who recently faced death threats from the office of a senior Arafat official when he reported something they didn't like. "You are expected to be an 'obedient servant'...to tell the truth only if it sounds and looks appropriate."

I'm not naive. There are plenty of Palestinians still unprepared for peace. But it is the emerging silent majority that both the new Sharon government and the Bush administration must encourage to speak out. It represents hope.

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JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report, a columnist at the NY Daily News and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Demoracies. A two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award and a recipient of the National Press Club Award, he was formerly executive editor of Newsweek International. His latest book, recently updated, is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.

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