BETHLEHEM—May Elatrash, a 34-year-old Christian Arab from Bethlehem, has a wish.

“If I had the chance I'd like to go to Jerusalem, to go to the churches and to see how the Jerusalem storeowners do business. I have three children and my oldest, who is 11, has only been to Jerusalem once, on a school trip. Jerusalem is right next door, but we can't even visit.”

To realize her dream, Elatrash, who works in her family's store on Manger Square, prayed for the success of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which came to a conclusion Oct. 23 at Wye Plantation, Maryland.

The offspring of those talks, the “Wye River Memorandum,” may not yet be the answer to her prayers. Yet it confirms the parties involved on the path toward peace, and constitutes a small step forward on some key issues.

The agreement, signed at the White House by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, involves a phased Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13% of the West Bank territory by the Jordan River, in exchange for security measures to disarm and neutralize violent Palestinian extremists, to be carried out under American supervision. Further provisions allow for a region now administered by the Palestinian Authority to be transferred to full political control, address the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, and point to the deletion of passages calling for the destruction of Israel from the Palestinian political charter.

Over the course of the week-long negotiations in the United States, Christians in the Holy Land — almost all of whom are Palestinians — hoped for a peace agreement that would give Palestinians more land, greater control over their lives, and freedom of travel within the West Bank and Gaza, and also into Israel. At the moment, the Israeli authorities allow only 50,000 Palestinian workers to enter Israel. More than a million Palestinians are not permitted to do so.

Support for the accord is widespread; an opinion poll published in the newspaper Yediot Aharot showed that 74% of Israelis approve of the deal, while 18% are opposed. Protests, however, were sparked by the release of the accord; demonstrators from Israeli West Bank settlements blocked traffic in protest, leading to 27 arrests.

On the Palestinian side, attempts to disarm militants led to the shooting of a 17-year-old boy by a Palestinian Authority military intelligence officer. Few Arab nations have welcomed the agreement; reactions range from caution to outright condemnation, with only Egypt and Jordan praising the accord.

Violence in response to the Wye River negotiations had already begun before the settlement was reached. On Oct. 19, Israel almost called off the talks after a Muslim fundamentalist from a Palestinian-ruled part of Hebron, in the West Bank, threw two hand grenades into a crowded bus station. As many as 64 Israeli soldiers and civilians were injured, two seriously.

Then, as the talks seemed on the verge of collapse, Jordan's King Hussein, in the United States for cancer treatment, asked to join the negotiations. The ailing Hussein, only the second leader of an Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, is highly respected both by Netanyahu and by Arafat. His presence at the summit at such a critical juncture breathed new life into the faltering negotiations.

Like just about everyone else in this troubled region, Holy Land Christians took a keen interest in the proceedings. “There is no doubt that Christians here are very deeply concerned about the peace process,” says Wadie Abunassaar, director of the Catholic Church's Year 2000 celebrations. “Any lack of progress only increases the number of fanatics on both sides — Jewish and Muslim. Abunassar, who is a Palestinian, said that Christians are often the first to suffer when Jews and Muslims clash, and that they will be among the first to benefit if and when peace breaks out.

During times of extreme tension between Jews and Muslims, he says, “the Christian minority is an easy target. There have been cases where Jews have accused Christians of collaborating with the Palestinians, and cases where Muslims accused us of collaborating with the Israelis. This is a difficult position to be in.”

Father Pierre Grech, Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of the Holy Land, says that Christians here “will be very glad to have a peace agreement,” but asked, “will it be a real peace?” Peace, he says, “must not be just a piece of paper but a reality. An agreement is an important first step, but we will have a great deal of work ahead of us to change the hearts and minds of the people here.”

Father Grech believes that Christians have “a great role” to play in preparing local people for peace. “This is particularly true in education because we have many schools.” Unfortunately, he noted, “there is a lot of mistrust from both sides. People want peace, but there is so much distrust. Every day there is a small bomb or a closure. Most don't believe that a signature on a peace agreement will do anything. Still, there is the possibility.”

Father Grech acknowledges that any change in mentality must extend to the clergy. Noting that the clergy in the local church were born and raised into the Arab-Israeli conflict, he says, “I think we have to work with the priests, and to change the mentality of some of them.”

Else where in the West Bank, reaction to the agreement has been more low key. In Bethlehem, just a few miles south of Jerusalem, store owners and laborers hoped the peace package would improve their flagging business prospects.

Sitting in front of his deserted souvenir shop in Manger Square, 65-year-old Michael Kumsiyeh , a Christian, said that “any peace agreement is better than no agreement. The young people don't think so, but the old people do. “At my age,” he said, “you live on hope.”

Michele Chabin is the Register's Middle East Correspondent.