A modern, three-story, golden-stone-clad building on the outskirts of Dehaishe refugee camp in Bethlehem, the Ibdaa "cultural center," boasts a 24-terminal computer room, hooked up to the Internet. It offers the camp’s only theater/lecture hall. It sponsors a dance troupe.

The trophy-laden shelves in its lobby are testament to the proficiency of its various soccer and basketball teams. The photograph of the assassinated Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme is testament to the financial support of international humanitarian organizations such as the foundation set up in Palme’s memory, the non-profit Middle East Children’s Alliance and the Madre women’s human rights group.

Along with all its cultural and sporting activities, however, Ibdaa (Arabic for "to create something out of nothing") is also, I am assured, dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel.

It’s Web site isn’t quite that explicit. The homepage shows a picture of mandatory Palestine overlaid with the message: "Still struggling for our right to return home."

But Jihad, the earnest 23-year-old with the keys showing me around the premises on Tuesday, is definitive. The primary purpose of Ibdaa, he says, is to educate Palestinian children from the camp in their early teens about their roots, to ensure that they know where they came from and to where they must return.

"We don’t want to throw the Israelis into the sea,’ he says carefully, as one hand toys with the Che Guevara portrait on the zipper-handle of his sweater. "We want to destroy the pure Jewish state."

Pretty much as we were walking along the second floor corridor, where each of the 10 pink-doored bedrooms for foreign exchange students and other guests bears the name of a different former Arab village inside Israel, international news agencies were headlining the text of a newspaper interview with the putative next head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in which he termed the Palestinian use of violence against Israel these past four years "a mistake" and urged its cessation.

Such entreaties sound rather like messages from another planet when absorbed in a place like the Ibdaa building. Far away, in a remote galaxy, sits Abu Mazen, demanding that the "rejection of the occupation" be expressed without weapons, solely "by popular and social means." And here… Well, let me just describe the brightly-colored paintings that line the entire stairwell.

MOVING FROM ground floor and on up, we pass a middle-aged, traditionally dressed Palestinian mother poised to hurl the rock in her outstretched hand ("the first intifada," Jihad explains helpfully), and then a rendering of the Al-Aksa mosque surrounded by flames ("the second intifada"). The artistic glorification of "resistance" is interspersed with panels naming the dozens of villages inside sovereign, pre-1967 Israel that the thousands of children who use this center are told they will one day rebuild.

And at the top of the stairs, at the entrance to the hall where, Jihad says, the teens and their grandparents meet regularly to discuss their heritage ("because we can’t actually go and visit the destroyed villages, like we used to until 2000"), there is what can only be described as the artistic piece de "resistance." A life-sized portrait of a young Palestinian man, lighted petrol bomb in hand, beneath a slogan that underlines the depth of the disconnect from Abu Mazen: "Oh enemy of the sun," it proclaims. "I will not compromise and I will continue to struggle until the last pulse in my veins."

There are centers like Ibdaa – "cultural not political," Jihad takes pains to stress – at many refugee camps, inculcating the message of return. And Ibdaa is about to broaden its impact on Dehaishe, home to 11,000 people, 60 percent of whom are 16 or younger. "We’re starting a radio station soon," Jihad tells me.

To be called? "One nine four" – after the December 1948 UN resolution which provides "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date."

Smart and articulate, Jihad is computer literate, with very good English. He is also entirely committed to the "right of return" – absolutely at the price of his own life if necessary. (When I asked him where he was from, he named a village inside Israel. He then explained that his grandparents and father were born there; he has always lived in Dehaishe.)

You know, of course, that Israel can never countenance such a "right," I tell him. It will not commit national suicide.

He nods, acknowledging this, and says, "Then we will continue to struggle.

"I don’t want to die," he adds, and then sloganizes: "But what is life without dignity." Except it doesn’t sound like a slogan.

Jihad isn’t going to vote on January 9. And he knows plenty of other young Palestinians who won’t vote either. He might have bothered for Marwan Barghouti. "But Abu Mazen?" He says the name almost pityingly. "Abu Mazen won’t make any difference."

What if Abu Mazen tries to strike a deal, to find a compromise on the refugee issue.

"He can’t sell out the refugees because he would be killed," says Jihad, before adding, after a pause and with a bit of an embarrassed, apologetic grin, "maybe."

A FIVE-MINUTE drive away, in the cold, quiet offices at Bethlehem’s City Hall, Jamal Salman, director of the municipality, vouchsafes a little secret. Most Palestinians, he confides, "know that the Israelis will not let all of them [the refugees] come back."

Why not say so publicly, I wonder, and thus signal to Israel a crucial readiness to compromise while preparing the Palestinian people for the puncturing of the maximalist goal?

"It’s not in our interest," Salman responds firmly. "This has to be negotiated."

The municipality director uses our conversation to highlight a litany of complaints and frustrations. He protests the post-1967 confiscation of thousands of dunams of Bethlehem’s land, and the more recent seizure of a further 1,000 dunams – 65 of which are owned by his family, he says, whipping out a map – as the security barrier advances. He laments the absence of tourism just days before Christmas.

Our hotels are almost empty, he says, then corrects himself: "Not almost. Empty." He claims that he simply cannot understand why Israel insists on maintaining the roadblocks and checkpoints that so deter moneyed foreign visitors, when "all foreigners, all Israelis, are safer here than they are in Tel Aviv."

But it is apparently "not in our interest," either, for Salman, to mention the backdrop to his city’s current unenviable plight: the early months of shooting on Gilo, the murderous gunmen firing on Israelis on roads nearby, and the unceasing efforts to smuggle suicide bombers into Israel – the aggression that deterred the tourists and prompted the fence and roadblocks.

Some taboos are being broken, however. There is no portrait of Yasser Arafat in his all-but empty office. And Salman, while stating that the late leader will be remembered as "a symbol of the Palestinians for a long time to come," is ready to admit that "he wasn’t a god" and that, like all leaders, "he made mistakes." Still, he won’t say what these were, and insists the situation would have been better for both our peoples "if the Israelis had followed their Oslo obligations."

Heresy has penetrated deeper on the streets outside the municipal building. In the pristine, soaring, empty, Swedish-funded "Bethlehem Peace Center," the underemployed young woman at the information desk is so bold as to suggest that "because Arafat is gone, maybe things will get better… He was old. We need someone new. He had old ideas. We need new ideas. He couldn’t change."

And while the walls of the nearby alleys are still plastered with tributes to "martyrs" such as the local Fatah "military" commander Hussein Abayat (pictured in military fatigues, with sunglasses and a massive gun) and his cousin Mohammad (in plain clothes, pot-bellied, with M-16), those posters are fading now, and there aren’t too many of Arafat either.

"I’m voting for Mustafa [Barghouti, a distant cousin of Marwan’s]. He’s one of us," says a middle-aged man whiling away the day on a bench in Manger Square. This man, who gives his name as Abu George, used to work as a painter, in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, all over Israel, but hasn’t had a job in five years. "I’ve had enough of these people" – the Arafat generation, " he says. "Abu Mazen is a good man, but enough is enough. We don’t want to be ruled by the same people all our lives."

"If only we could back to the pre-Oslo period," chorus the two elderly gentlemen seated outside their bed-linen store a few hundred meters away.

Pre-Oslo? Those were the intifada years.

"Yes, but we could move around. There was work in Israel. Israelis came here," says the older of the two, Hebron-born Rashid Abu-Sneneh, a man with a perfectly trimmed silver mustache and strikingly white teeth. "Now I can’t move more than three kilometers in any direction. My mother is in Hebron and I haven’t seen her for eight months because of the checkpoints. And (it’s mid-afternoon) I haven’t sold a thing all day."

Maybe the elections will bring some change?

"Elections," they laugh together, and wave at the walls. "Do you see anything about elections?"

I don’t.

"We haven’t heard anything. Haven’t seen anything," Abu-Sneneh continues. "Still, if they want us to vote, we’ll vote. If they want us to shout, we’ll shout. If they want us to beat ourselves, we’ll beat ourselves."

Vote for whom?

"Who cares," he laughs again. "Abu Mazen. Mrs. Mazen…"
Serious now, he says: "Abu Mazen can’t do anything. He can’t deliver."

Deliver what?

"Write it down: We want peace for Jews and Arabs."

Okay, so how do we get to that? Let’s start with the refugees. How to solve the refugee issue.

"With the right of return," he intones. "Without it, there will never be peace." Then there’s a pause. "Not that I care myself," he adds.

AS ONE after another, the candidates to succeed Yasser Arafat abandon the elections, it becomes ever more likely that Abu Mazen will win. And his victory becomes ever more problematic.

Success over Marwan Barghouti, even if assured by the kinds of dodgy disappearing ballot-box practices that guaranteed Arafat the emphatic 88 percent trouncing of Al-Bira social-worker Samiha al-Khalil in 1996, could have been presented as a genuine, popular triumph, and thus a mandate for change.

Victory in a contest which other candidates have either been intimidated into eschewing or deterred from joining carries no such value. Victory in a contest in which the other candidates are prevented from traveling freely to campaign may actually be counterproductive. (Several of the candidates, including Mustafa Barghouti and Communist leader Bassam Salhi, have gained precious Arabic TV time by getting themselves stopped at checkpoints. This is boosting their appeal among a populace so widely hostile to Israel. Abu Mazen, by contrast, moves about unhindered.)

And victory in which all the candidates, while declaring their determination to stamp out corruption and introduce transparent government, also insist on a return to the 1967 borders and implementation of the right of return, hardly presages a new dawn for Israel.

Yes, many Palestinians recognize that terrorism has not worked for them, that it has proved counterproductive, says a journalist colleague who covers Palestinian affairs. But Abu Mazen doesn’t have the power to take on the bombers.

"He’s a figure of suspicion on the Palestinian street. Like Abu Ala, seen as an American creation, a puppet. He can’t fight Hamas. He can’t fight Islamic Jihad. He can’t even fight [his own Fatah] Al-Aksa brigades. He can only beg them. And there’ll be relative calm only if they deem it to be in their interest. The only person who was capable of taking them on was Arafat. and he didn’t want to."

Similarly, says this same colleague, most Palestinians recognize that Israel can never agree to the right of return, "but no Palestinian leader can come out and say so. That’s treason. Look what’s happened to Sari Nusseibeh (the ex-PLO representative in Jerusalem who calls for "limiting" the right of return to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.). He’s seen as a traitor. He’s finished."

"Even if he wanted to" – and he’s explicitly saying the opposite – "Abu Mazen cannot renounce the demand for a right of return," this colleague continues. The people wouldn’t allow it. Least of all if, as is becoming plain, his will be no genuine, popular mandate to govern.

As Jihad told me apologetically: "He would be killed… maybe."