Weary from weeks of violence, Israeli officials are bracing for a possible new round tomorrow as Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip mark an anniversary of Fatah, the main faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. For the PLO, Jan. 1 (which marks Fatah's first guerrilla raid on Israel in 1965) may be the first anniversary in years worth celebrating. Two weeks of unrest this month have rescued the PLO and the Arab-Israeli conflict from being politically obscured by the more immediate crisis in the Gulf.
Many nongovernment Israelis and most Palestinians do not believe the PLO directly incited or organized the riots, in which at least 22 Arabs were killed. But the PLO, these observers agree, was quick to capitalize on the spontaneous uprisings led by a youthful new generation.
``[The PLO] didn't play any role in the beginning,'' says one Palestinian activist from Gaza. ``But when they saw the demonstrations they moved their [hand] inside Gaza to increase the wave of demonstrations'' through leaflets and directives from PLO operatives.
According to Asher Susser, a professor of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University, ``From the PLO's standpoint, it doesn't really make much difference whether the organization is instrumental in arousing unrest or not.''
What does make a difference is if the PLO can use the unrest for its own purposes - which it has done skillfully in response to the recent violence, says Professor Susser. ``The PLO can claim that the demonstrations were a means of [Palestinians] identifying with the organization. That's of crucial political importance to the PLO,'' Susser says.
Israeli officials have insisted that PLO provocateurs, in response to directives from PLO headquarters in Tunis, incited the riots. But according to Palestinians and other Israelis, only after the unrest started Dec. 8 did the PLO seek to take advantage of the possibilities it offered.
``The PLO is always interested in popular uprising, but they can't push the population too far,'' says Daoud Kuttab, former editor of the English language edition of the Palestinian weekly Al-Fajr. ``They basically leave it up to their local people to decide whether the people are up to it or not.''
PLO extends roots in territories
Despite limitations on the PLO's ability to turn violence on like a faucet, it retains a strong claim on the loyalties of a majority of Palestinians, say many experts.
Until the late 1970s the PLO was principally involved in the armed struggle against Israel. That meant harnessing the energies of a tiny fraction of the Palestinian population to launch guerrilla attacks.
But since then, say various experts on the organization, the PLO has broadened its popular base, unified its operational commands, and cemented tactical alliances in the territories. Starting in the early 1980s, PLO factions began sinking deeper roots at the local level, expanding grass-roots organizing and labor unions, university and student councils, womens' organizations and volunteer groups.
Many of these groups have helped provide services such as maternity and health care and have thus been effective vehicles for the PLO to engage the loyalties of tens of thousands of Palestinians.
``It doesn't take long for people working in these situations to be mobilized without somebody pushing a button in Tunis,'' Mr. Kuttab says.
One Israeli notes that the rioting had been under way for four days before PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, reached in Baghdad, Iraq, by a BBC correspondent, was finally willing to proclaim that a rebellion was taking place in the territories.
The countless post-mortems on the rioting have paid particular attention to the shadowy role of the ``shebab,'' cadres of youthful protesters that have emerged in many of the Palestinian refugee camps.
The shebab are widely assumed to be linked to the PLO. But they appear to operate with relative autonomy, making the timing of disturbances more a function of local leadership and circumstance than of outside direction.
More recently, the PLO has forged a working alliance with Sunni Muslim fundamentalists in Gaza that is potentially more threatening to Israel. A religious awakening in Gaza has spawned a homegrown ``Islamic Jihad'' movement militantly opposed to the Israeli occupation.
Extensive news media coverage of the occupation recently may revive flagging PLO fortunes outside the territories also. The organization has been increasingly isolated in the Arab world, which has shifted attention away from Israel because of the Iranian threat in the Gulf.
Mr. Arafat used the riots to refloat an old trial balloon last week, calling for the establishment of a government-in-exile for Palestinians. The proposal is aimed at creating a Palestinian entity more acceptable to Israel to negotiate the future of the territories. Experts say the idea is likely to founder, as in times past, because of fears among other Palestinians that foreign governments might transfer their recognitions from the PLO.
Israel has warned that it will respond to any new outbreaks with the full force of Israeli arms. Israeli officials have dismissed US urging not to deport any of the hundreds of Palestinians jailed for participating in the riots.
As speeded-up mass trials continued yesterday, despite a lawyers boycott, Israel's Cabinet debated possible deportations. Because of the risk of inciting more violence, none were expected until after ``Fatah Day'' tomorrow.