We are being driven around Hebron, a city of over 100,000 Palestinians and 400 ultra-orthodox Jews who have hijacked the centre, their enclave protected by up to 3,000 Israeli troops. Our guide is Nabil Abu Znaid of the University of Hebron. He wants to show us the centre but is stopped at the military checkpoint. 'Are you a Jew or an Arab?' a soldier asks him. 'An Arab', he replies. 'Sorry, only Jews allowed through.' Two of us say we're Jewish but it makes no difference as the car driver is a Palestinian. The idea of Jews and Arabs sitting in the same car, engaging in normal everyday social intercourse, is still strange to many Israelis, as a survey of attitudes to Palestinians among 800 Israeli teenagers aged 16 to 18 recently carried out by the University of Haifa shows. Up to 67 percent believe that 'no Palestinian can be trusted', 61 percent believe that 'Israeli Arabs should not be given equal rights to Jews', and 71 percent believe that 'Israeli Arabs desire the destruction of Israel.'
The 'peace process' that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 has resulted in a significant deterioration in the living standards of ordinary Palestinians. Two thirds of the 900,000 inhabitants of Gaza are refugees from the first Israeli-Arab war of 1948 living in camps constructed as temporary shelters by the UN in 1951. The housing is substandard, the facilities often unhygenic. In some houses, more than 15 people live in two or three rooms.
In 1993 there was celebration in the Occupied Territories. Today, according to Raji El-Sourani, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, 'there is no faith in the peace process, no hope in the future.' There is now an unprecedented 70 percent level of unemployment in Gaza. In 1993 international donor countries promised the Palestine Authority $2.4 billion over five years. Of this, around half has been received, which means that there is only cosmetic investment in infrastructure. Moreover, the latest United Nations budget resulted in a 15 percent cut in subsidies. Also 20 Hamas welfare centres were recently closed down due to Israeli pressure, depriving 40,000 Gazans of vital services.
The cost of the closures to the Palestinian economy has been roughly £6 million a day, two thirds of its total income, including £850,000 of family income. Wages in Gaza and the West Bank are £200 to £300 per month, one seventh of the level in Israel, but Palestinians pay the same prices.
The Israeli government has broken 33 pledges made in the Oslo agreement. One undertaking was to establish a corridor linking Gaza and the West Bank. But since Oslo, Palestinians need special permission to travel from one to the other. And following bomb attacks, the Israeli army also closes off Palestinian towns from each other, suffocating economic life by preventing the supply of fresh food to local markets so that it rots. A 15kg box of Gaza tomatoes costs 5 to 6 shekels (£1) locally, whereas if they are imported into the West Bank one can buy no more than 1kg for that. Palestinians are forced to buy Israeli produce, part of the aim.
In contrast, Israel has built a network of brand new roads linking West Bank settlements to each other and to army bases. This cantonisation enables the settlers to avoid driving through Palestinian villages.
In recent years the concerted policy to 'Judaise' East Jerusalem has resulted in the 170,000 Jews in greater East Jerusalem outnumbering Palestinians by about 5,000. The aim of this policy has been to scupper any possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Under the previous Labour administration, the number of settlers in the Occupied Territories grew by 50 percent and now stands at 160,000 (apart from the 170,000 in East Jerusalem). Palestinians see the differences between their lives and those of the settlers. The buildings and streets of the settlements are clean, the grass watered even when there is a water shortage in the camps. Jewish children play in big, clean playgrounds with swimming pools while Palestinian children in the camps play around open sewers and rubbish piled high at every street corner. It was this stark inequality together with the daily humiliation of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli army that finally sparked off the Intifada in 1987.
But the energy and militancy displayed in the Intifada were a threat not only to Israel but to the PLO leadership in Tunis.
The Netanyahu government is pushing Arafat beyond the limit of his capacity to control his own people. And the Hamas Islamic movement continues to gain support despite Arafat's willingness to act as policeman on the beat obeying the orders of his Israeli and American superior officers. He jails Hamas members, holding them without charge for varying periods before having to release them for lack of evidence. But, as Nabil Abu Znaid says, 'Every time Netanyahu closes a town, he recruits suicide bombers...Palestinians want peace. But if their aims aren't achieved, there will be a return to violence. And it will be more painful than before.'
A hunger strike in Gaza recently took place by Hamas members imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority. There was a solidarity sit-in at the HQ of the Red Cross in East Jerusalem by 120 Palestinian aid workers calling on the organisation to demand that Israel release the 3,500 Palestinians still in Israeli jails and that Arafat free the few hundred he has incarcerated.
The recent bungled attempt by the security service to assassinate the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Jordan caused great ructions. Israel was forced to release the Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin. Days later he made a speech in which he hinted at the possibility of a ten year truce with Israel. According to Yussuf Asfour, an Israeli Palestinian socialist, this probably signals the possibility that Hamas is about to compromise with Israel. 'People will see that Hamas doesn't have a solution either. They will see through their leaders, both the nationalists of the PLO and the right wing Islamists of Hamas, that the only alternative is a socialist one.'