Among West Bank Palestinians, Arafat is still popular

The emerging split inside the Palestine Liberation Organization's fighting units in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is the talk of the West Bank. Far from the scene, uncertain of what is happening, and caught up in the day-to-day problems of Israeli occupation, the 800,000 Palestinians living on the hilly, largely rural West Bank of the Jordan River are grappling with the question of how the PLO's troubles will affect them.

A few West Bank moderates believe the possible demise of the PLO might present Jordan's King Hussein with a free hand to make a last-minute attempt to negotiate with Israel the future of what once was the western part of his Kingdom, but most West Bankers seem to hope that the PLO's internal conflict will be papered over.

''People don't want to face that they are waiting for the slaughterhouse, that this is our last chance for negotiations before Israel annexes us,'' said a Palestinian businessman, running his fingers through his hair in a gesture of despair.

''The people here are waiting for a miracle. The PLO is in disarray but they don't want to see it.''

Among West Bank intellectuals and political figures of all tendencies, there is frustration at the lack of information about the dissension inside PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization. The West Bank Arab press has confined itself mainly to editorials calling for unity within the PLO. But there is also a tendency to believe Mr. Arafat will survive his troubles.

Arafat so far remains a popular symbol, even though more criticism is heard openly on the West Bank about his leadership. ''Everybody needs Yasser Arafat, including the Saudis, who don't want a pro-Soviet PLO leadership,'' asserts a leftist West Bank intellectual who himself is highly critical of the PLO leader. ''Arafat is clever, he is the only one who can balance the organization.''

West Bankers quote the Israeli chief of military intelligence, Gen. Ehud Barak, who said Tuesday that reports of dissension within Fatah ranks have been exaggerated by the news media and that ''the situation is not yet critical; Arafat has come out of more critical situations.''

All the same, West Bank intellectuals say that if Mr. Arafat survives as PLO chief, he will no longer be able to pursue the diplomatic option for determining the West Bank's future, a tactic opposed by the rebels, who favor focusing on anti-Israeli guerrilla warfare.

An end to the diplomatic option will affect the West Bank far more severely than it will the PLO fighters in the Bekaa Valley. For the West Bank - squeezed by increasing numbers of Israeli Jewish settlements and growing more fearful every day of permanent Israeli annexation - has provided the base of support for Arafat's diplomatic forays.

When the PLO chief shouted down rebels opposed to negotiation at the PLO's national council meeting in Algiers in February, he lectured them that diplomacy was necessary ''to save the land'' of the West Bank.

But Arafat weakened his connection to the West Bank by deciding not to endorse negotiations by King Hussein and non-PLO Palestinians with Israel over the future of the West Bank. This made him more dependent on his fighters in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa. These men are sons of refugees from the north and coastal regions of that part of Palestine that became pre-1967 Israel, an area to which there is no hope they can return via negotiations.

Driven from refugee camps in Beirut and south Lebanon by Israeli troops last year, these Palestinians see the Bekaa as their last stand. Both the fighters - even those in Arafat's Fatah movement - and the Syrians oppose any Jordan-oriented negotiating tack.

Some Western diplomats are speculating that the hobbling of Arafat, or a split within the PLO, could produce a situation where West Bankers will appeal to King Hussein to negotiate on their behalf without the PLO.

A West Bank moderate hypothesized, ''If there is a split, and if leftist leadership takes over the PLO, will the moderate Arabs use this as an excuse to back off from their support for the PLO? Will this give the King the leeway to act for the West Bank and the West Bank the leeway to turn to the King?''

But after long conversations, he and other West Bank moderates admitted the obstacles to such a scenario are formidable.

First, there is the problem of West Bank leadership, decimated by emigration, and Israeli expulsions and firings of Arabs from elected office. There are few West Bank leaders - including pro-Jordanian moderates - who are willing to publicly challenge even a faltering PLO on how to negotiate with an Israeli state publicly committed to hold onto the West Bank.

At one West Bank discussion among a group of businessmen examining tactics for launching a new Palestinian peace movement, a participant asked about the means India used against England as shown in the film ''Gandhi,'' now playing in Jerusalem. ''Gandhi was a prophet, and we have no prophets here,'' was the quick response.

There is renewed fear of political assassination among the moderates. For the past several months, according to informed sources, there was a moratorium on such attacks by ''radical fanatics.'' There was also a rapprochement between pro-Jordanian and moderate Fatah PLO supporters based on the ongoing dialogue between King Hussein and Yasser Arafat. With this dialogue cut, and Fatah on the defensive, some moderates fear that anyone seen as a challenger to the PLO may be in danger.

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