PLO policy shift seen in attacks on Jewish settlers

Until recently, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) seemed to be holding back on military activity, presumably in hope of making diplomatic gains.

Now, the May 2 attack on Jewish settlers in Hebron, which left six slain in that West Bank town, may have signaled a shift in PLO policy.

Certainly, Palestinian patience with the cumbersome diplomatic process the PLO has been following for the past year or so has recently been wearing thin.

PLO leaders were frustrated by the April 30 vote on the UN Security Council resolution on Palestinian rights -- not so much because of the United States veto, which they expected, but by the abstention of West European nations, who they hoped would vote for the resolution.

In the PLO planners' complicated scheme of diplomatic checks and balances, this only seemed to emphasize that Eurepean leverage on the US would be minimal for coming months, with the Europeans closing ranks with the US over the Iran and Afghanistan crises.

Events seemed to be coming to a head, anyhow, in a West Bank inflamed by opposition to the presence of the Israeli settlers and military, and to the Camp David process which appeared to West Bankers to perpetuate this presence.

New forms of opposition have been demanded -- opposition which would go beyond both the traditional fedayeen (Arab guerrilla) attacks on mainly civilian targets inside Israel, and the mass strikes and demonstrations which already have knit the West Bank Palestinians into a fireball of resistance to Israeli rule.

Only a few hours before the Hebron attack took place, one senior Arafat aide was admitting, "We need to escalate the armed struggle against the Israelis, but most of all we need to use methods, to choose more specific targets."

This aide, a senior member of PLO leader Yasser Arafat's own Al-Fatah guerrilla group, has been closely involved in the PLO's overtures to the Western public opinion during the past year, and was well aware of the propaganda gains the Israelis were able to reap from one of the PLO's previous military actions.

The younger generation of intellectuals in Al-Fatah and other groups that make up the PLO for some time now have been pressing for operations against Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

They argued that such operations, as well as directly affecting the balance of power in the territories, would be considered more genuine acts of resistance by Western public opinion than attacks on civilian targets inside Israel. They would also show the weakness in the setlers' own argument that the settlements are necessary for the security of Israel.

"If the American administration considers the planting of settlements in the occupied territories as illegal, then surely it cannot be illegal for the residents of those territories to attack them," one young Palestinian professor argued.

When the Israeli government ruled last March that Jewish settler should be allowed to live in the densely populated Arab city of Hebron, US officials publicly deemed the decision unhelpfull to the peace process.

The new Jewish colony in Hebron thus presented an attractive target to the Palestinians. This was not only because of its siting and topography, so different from the fortified strategic hilltops chosen by most West Bank settlers, but also because it represented such a pointed manifestation of the settlers' philosophy.

Can other similar attacks on West Bank Jewish targets now be expected? Perhaps not in the immediate future, but such raids apparently are the hope of Al-fatah and other PLO leaders who think the diplomatic process needs a little external prodding.

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