"It's confusing. It's a terrible period," said one of the pillars of the Palestine Liberation Organization inside the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
She was referring to the fallout from the surprise visit to Israel of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Only minutes before, Raymonda Taweel had been speaking with a great display of certitude about how bad the Sadat trip had been for the Palestinian cause.
The confusion of Raymonda Taweel, affectionately known locally as "La Pasionaria," seems to reflect a general state of anxiety and flux among the 700,000 Arabs on the West Bank after the shock treatment of Sadat's initiative. Most attention was riveted on his appeal to the Israeli leaders and people, but he was also appealing in effect to the Palestinians.
While proponents of the Palestinian cause were attacking Egyptian embassies throughout the Arab world and elsewhere, in the occupied territories it was difficult to gauge where people stood.
Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem, widely regarded as a traditionalist, said in an interview that 80 to 90 per cent of the West Bank was behind Sadat. Twelve miles away, in Ramallah, Mayor Karim Khallaf, elected on a strong PLO platform, said that the population overwhelmingly rejected Sadat.
"I agree with both of them, every word," quipped a Western diplomat who is a veteran observer of the region.
Raymonda Taweel's house serves as a salon where Palestinian nationalists can meet Westerners and Israelis interested in talking with some of the more ardent Palestinians. Nafez Nazzal, the director of the Middle East Studies Center at Bir Zeit College, the most prestigious school on the West Bank, was holding forth.
Nazzal, U.S.-educated and an American citizen, started by denouncing the Sadat visit as "a sellout." Under questioning, he gradually began painting a positive picture of its possible results.
Then, Ramalluh's Mayor Khallaf came into the room and made a strong statement against Sadat. As the mayor spoke, Nazzal started chiming in with anti-Sadat comments.
The mayor left the room. After a while, Nazzal said. "You want to know what people think? They are saying, 'If God wills it, I hope something good comes of it.' This is a spontaneous and really pessimistic answer."
There were practically no demonstrations against Sadat in the West Bank. Pro-PLO personalities give three reasons.
Sadat caught everyone by surprise.
He timed his visit to coincide with the start of the four-day Moslem Feast of the Sacrifice, when the high school and university students who normally spearhead demonstrations were in the bosom of their families.
Egypt closed down the Voice of Palestine radio in Cairo. "People could not hear what the PLO had to say, so they did not know what to think," said Nazzal.
Even PLO leader Yasser Arafat appears to have wavered. He was in the audience when Sadat announced the visit to the Egyptian Parliament. Television cameras caught him applauding Sadat. There is speculation that Sadat must have told Arafat beforehand.
A few days later, back in Beirut among the factions of the PLO, Arafat was publicly denouncing the trip. Yet, in terms of the usual, highly charged level of Palestinian rhetoric, his words seemed mild. He expressed puzzlement more than outrage.
Outsiders who follow West Bank affairs closely say that the population appears to agree on two basic points: They want an end to the Israeli occupation, and they want some sort of Palestinian state. When it comes to how those ends should be achieved and what form they should take, opinions differ sharply, sometimes within the same person, depending on the moment.
"Public opinion here comes like waves," said Nazzal. "The only constant is attachment to the PLO, but the PLO cannot organize very well because of Israeli repression."
"The PLO has influence but not organization," said Taweel.
There are still prominent Palestinians eager to work with King Hussein of Jordan, despite his violent expulsion of PLO forces in September 1970. Bethlehem Mayor Freij, who professes to back the PLO as the spokesman for the Palestinians (as does King Hussein), is nevertheless accused by many PLO supporters of being a "collaborationist" with Jordan.
Freij was one of 10 prominent West Bankers who caled on Sadat while he was in Jerusalem. The other mayors of the seven largest West Bank towns boycotted Sadat. They are the products of the nearly clean sweep made in the 1976 municipal elections by the nationalist tickets that openly proclaimed their backing for the PLO.
"We told the people not to expect miracles, not to expect big improvements in administration because we don't have the money," said Ramallah's charismatic mayor Khallaf. "We asked them to elect us simply because we are behind the PLO."
Israeli officials say that that attitude is beginning to erode support for mayors like Khallaf. They cite the case of public pressure forcing Khallaf this summer to accept proffered Israeli help to solve Ramallah's severe water supply problem. Initially, he had refused any Israel aid.
'The Israelis are not trying to win hearts and minds," said one Westerner. "But then they couldn't do it anyway, even if they tried to be more lenient. They observe what they consider to be humane limits interpreted tough-mindedly and they are willing to enforce security without worrying about world opinion. So they're not very tactful in the waya they administer."
Raymonda Taweel's local reputation was made when the Israeli placed her under three-months' house arrest last year for threatening Ramallah shopkeepers with reprisals if they did not close their shops in compliance with a PLO general strike order. During her house arrest, her spacious, comfortable home on St. John street became a center for nationalist gatherings. Israeli officials say that that did not bother them. "We do distinguish between talk and deed," said one official. "We tolerate declarations."
On a visit to her house last week I gt an amused look from Mr. Taweel as I passed him standing in the front yard with several relatives. "Are there a lot of people in there?" I asked. "Well, that's why I'm out here," he replied. "There's no room in there."
Inside, reporters, photographers and sound men were coming and going in shifts.
Tawell, in her 30s, wears a gold choker with the word "Palestine" in a popular style of jewelry that other women use to display their first names at their neck. She is a Christian from Acre, now part of Israel.
With tears in her eyes, she described a visit to the family house in Acre. The Israelis took it over as abandoned property after her family fled the war zone there. She says the house is now an Israel art gallery. "I went into my house belonged to an ancient Jewish family. My father built it. It was out inheritance, the house and the beautiful orange grove.
"The Jews didn't forget for 2,000 years, and you want to forget the past so fast. You want me to sign over my house to some dawn Jew from the Soviet Union just to make Carter and the Zionists' lobby happy. What's wrong with you Americans? Why don't you give them Texas?"
Turning her wrath on Sadat, Taweel said, "What does he want? He tells us to be happy by making Israel happy. He broke the trauma in Israel, but he made another trauma in Palestine - the feat that we will be given back to Jordan.
"Why should we be governed by somebody? Why shouldn't we rule ourselves? Do you think we can talk freely in Jordan? And Egypt, what do we care about Egypt? Let them be behind Sadat."
Mayor Khallaf said he would no go to Geneva to be part of the united Arab negotiation delegates, even if Arafat asked him. "Israel chose Begin. The American people chose Carter. We chose our leadership. Arafat should go. If anybody from here does, he will be open to Israeli pressure because he will have to return to live here under Israeli rule. We are against civil and local administration. Israeli wants to create a new leadership to replace the PLO. We'll get our state through the PLO. Through others it will not be a state at all."
"Nobody in this room should go to Geneva," said Khallaf, looking meaningfully at Wasif Abboushi, one of the Palestinian professors with U.S. citizenship who has been mentioned in speculation about possible Geneva negotiators. A political science professor from the university of Cincinati, Abboushi has been teaching this year at Bir Zeit.
Until the mayor arrived to take center stage in the Taweel home, Abboushi had been saying he would go to Geneva if asked. But, describing his ownmixed feelings, he said: "Sadat is a man of history. He is the guy who crossed the canal and the guy who came to Jerusalem. I am uncomfrotable with men of history. He's too much of an individualist.
"I'm willing to change my mind if the results give more pluses than minuses. Right now, I see more minuses. Who knows? My old mother got up this morning and prayed for Sadat."
Sadat clearly did not win the hearts and minds of all the 'Israelis.
After nighfall, on the road back from the West Bank, my taxi was stopped at a checkpoint manned by three Israeli soldiers about 20 years old.
Returning my U.S. passport through the window, one of the soldiers asked, "Arabs, you like?"
Noncommitally, I asked, "What do you think of Arabs?"
"No good," he replied within earshot of the Arab cab driver.
"No, no," interrupted on of the other soldiers. "Now we are hoping for peace. We will see."