Palestinians kept their ears glued to radios and pored over local newspapers, which gave equal weight to the latest Israeli developments and Palestinian elections scheduled for 25 January.

"I think that there is slight optimism in reaction to what is going on in Israel," said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath. "I think that there is an
opportunity for the peace process. ... The Palestinian leadership is following carefully what is going on in Israel."

Sharon, who moderated his longstanding hard line against the Palestinians by turning over the Gaza Strip to their control this summer - has repeatedly voiced his commitment to the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which foresees the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Abu Rudeina said the PA is waiting
to see what will emerge

The Palestinian Authority expressed hope on Monday that a general election expected in Israel early next year would elect a prime minister committed to reopening the Middle East peace process.

"In principle, we don't interfere in domestic Israeli affairs. What matters for us is to see a prime minister in Israel committed to the peace process," said Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina.

Anxious Palestinians

"The Palestinian Authority is waiting to see the political programme of the next Israeli government to see whether it will be a government of peace or a government that will continue to procrastinate and shy away from peace," Abu Rudeina said.

Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erikat said: "I've never seen anything of this significance. I believe this is an eruption of an Israeli political volcano, and I hope that when the dust settles, we will have a partner in Israel to go toward the end of conflict."

Some Palestinians were sceptical, noting that Israel, under Sharon, is building a barrier that will incorporate about 8% of occupied West Bank land into Israel.

Land grab

While Palestinians accuse Israel of a blatant land grab, Israel says the barrier is necessary to prevent what it calls attacks.

 

"I will never believe anyone who built the fence and cut up our lands in the [occupied] territories. We need something new but we don't believe this is good for the Palestinians"

Awsaf Halas, 30,
West Bank resident

They also noted that Sharon continues to expand Jewish settlements in occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.

"I will never believe anyone who built the fence and cut up our lands in the [occupied] territories," said Awsaf Halas, 30, a secretary from the West Bank city of Nablus. "We need something new, but we don't believe this is good for the Palestinians."