Palestinian Reaction to Sharon's Absence Varies

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lies in in recovery from a massive stroke, many Palestinians view his almost certain departure from the political scene with a mixture of uncertainty and hope. Others say they are more concerned about continued turmoil in advance of parliamentary elections.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lies incapacitated in a Jerusalem hospital, many Palestinians are considering his almost certain departure from the political scene. They view it with a mixture of uncertainty and hope, the hope being that any successor will restart peace talks. Other Palestinians say they're far more concerned about continued lawlessness and turmoil in advance of parliamentary elections at month's end. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Palestinian shoppers crowd an outdoor market in central Ramallah. They're buying meat, fruit and vegetables for Eid al-Adha, the three-day feast of the sacrifice holiday which began Tuesday.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Abu Mahmoud(ph) sells hot tea and pudding from a big wooden cart. He says all of his customers are talking about Ariel Sharon's health and what might come after him.

Mr. ABU MAHMOUD: (Through Translator) I realize somebody worse than Sharon could come next, but I want one better because people are fed up with poverty. We want peace to prevail.

WESTERVELT: Senior Palestinian Authority officials voice similar concerns about what new Israeli leadership might mean for the stalled peace process. Many Palestinians loathe what they call Sharon's one-sided approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last summer after 38 years of military occupation. But other Palestinians grudgingly concede that Sharon was a charismatic, get-it-done leader who was moving closer to the political center at the time of his stroke. Now uncertainty again reigns. Palestinian legislator and housing and public works minister Mohammed Shtayyeh.

Mr. MOHAMMED SHTAYYEH (House and Public Works Minister, Palestine): The Sharon illness is not an internal Israeli issue. Whoever comes after Sharon affects us directly. We want somebody who sits with us to really conclude a peace agreement. The issue for us is Jerusalem, is refugees.

WESTERVELT: To ever get peace negotiations going again, the Palestinian Authority has to overcome a major election day challenge from Hamas. For the first time, the Islamist militant groups is fielding candidates for the national parliament called the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas candidates won several key municipal elections last year. They're expected to win perhaps as much as 20 percent of the national council seats in voting scheduled for January 25th. Many Hamas members view Sharon's all-but-certain political end with barely concealed delight.

Dr. MOHAMMED RAMAHI(ph): Our organization, the knowledge of Ariel Sharon is only the killing and the destructions. For us, we believe that the world without Sharon, it would be better.

WESTERVELT: Dr. Mohammed Ramahi is a soft-spoken paunchy 43-year-old anesthesiologist in Ramallah. He's also a parliamentary candidate with Hamas, a group whose platform includes a call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel and the US list Hamas as a terrorist organization responsible for hundreds of deaths. Dr. Ramahi believes that the potential turmoil and change in Israeli politics after Sharon will have little effect on the Palestinians.

Dr. RAMAHI: In my opinion, there will be no changes for the Palestinian people. This is an internal issue in Israel because all of the leaders of Israel from the Labor Party, from the Likud Party, all of them, they didn't do anything to improve our life.

WESTERVELT: Other Palestinians say it may not matter who they have in Israel as a partner for peace talks if the Palestinian Authority remains unable to rein in crippling disorder and violence throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Professor SAID ZADONI(ph) (Al-Quds University): Lawlessness, anarchy, corruption--I mean, the list is not small.

WESTERVELT: Said Zadoni is a professor at Al-Quds University. He says Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is weak and Hamas has stepped into the vacuum created by the chaos. The Palestinian president dithered, Zadoni says, when he should have exerted tough leadership.

Prof. ZADONI: Abu Mazen is a big disappointment. I mean, verbally, he has been saying all the right things, but he has been doing almost nothing.

WESTERVELT: And now Zadoni says Palestinian infighting has only intensified. In some ways, many Palestinians yearn for leaders who exhibit the kind of strong, can-do qualities they grudgingly admire in Ariel Sharon.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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