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Islamic Group's Growing Influence Heats Up Radical-Moderate Rivalry

Competition with PLO recalls Zionist battle to create the Jewish state. PALESTINIAN POLITICAL STRUGGLE

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 1993



JERUSALEM

AS the Palestinian expellees stranded in southern Lebanon line up for prayer each morning, or brandish copies of the Koran for TV cameras, their ordeal has changed the face of Palestinian politics.

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The plight of the radical Islamist Hamas members has given their movement dramatic new weight - enough to send Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat to Khartoum, Sudan, over the weekend for a meeting to patch up his ties with Hamas leaders.

While no immediate moves were expected from the summit, the expulsion has shaken up relations between the PLO and rival Hamas. It has also pointed up intriguing parallels between the Palestinians' struggle today and the Zionists' battle for creation of the Jewish state nearly 50 years ago.

During the past year of mounting frustration in the occupied territories with the scant progress made by Palestinian negotiators at the Middle East peace talks, Hamas has won support for its calls for all-out-war against Israel.

Now, the worldwide ruckus over expelling those linked to Hamas "has sealed the movement's legitimacy," says Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political analyst. "Hamas is now a fully fledged, legitimate political organization."

Despite its self-proclaimed, and internationally recognized, status as "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," the PLO was obliged to call Hamas leaders to Tunis for urgent discussions last month. The Islamists underlined their new self-confidence by arriving when they chose to, three days after the date set by the PLO.

While strengthening Hamas' hand, however, the expulsion also has a silver lining for Mr. Arafat, offering the plo a long-coveted chance of a direct role in the Middle East peace talks.

Left-wing members of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's coalition government are arguing that the harsh blow against the extremist Hamas must be matched by an overture to the more moderate PLO, with which Israeli leaders have always refused to talk.

Palestinian negotiators themselves, who openly take their orders from PLO headquarters in Tunis, have long insisted that Israel must make concessions if they are to retain any popular support for the peace process.

These arguments appear to be winning ground. Of the 120 Knesset (parliament) members, 47 now favor direct talks with the PLO, as does nearly half the Israeli population, according to recent opinion polls.

The dramatic violence used by Hamas, whose militants killed six Israeli soldiers in as many days last month - even as moderate nationalists were negotiating with the Israelis - ironically recalls the last years of the Zionist struggle against the British for the creation of Israel.

At that time, radical extremists in the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, and in the Stern Gang, bombed and assassinated their way to an independent state, even as the moderate Jewish Agency and its military wing, the Haganah, took the path of political negotiation.

"There is no doubt there are similarities," says Israeli historian Yehoshua Porat. "The Haganah mainstream was more moderate in its use of force, while the Irgun was readier to use force and more extreme in its political dreams" of an Israel stretching across the Jordan River.