The assassination of Palestine Liberation Organization deputy chief Khalil al-Wazir will not undermine the Palestinian ``uprising'' in the occupied territories. This is the view of PLO officials in the wake of the killing Saturday of Mr. Wazir (code name Abu Jihad, or ``father of struggle'').
Al-Fatah, the largest Palestinian group, and the PLO have charged Israel with the assassination and vowed the uprising will be escalated. But so far, they have not threatened to lift the ban announced in Cairo by PLO chief Yasser Arafat in November 1985 on guerrilla strikes against Israeli targets outside Israeli-held territory.
At press time, Israel refused to either confirm or deny accusations it played a part in Wazir's death. (Wazir's death and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Page 9.)
This February, PLO statements warned that Arafat's ``Cairo Declaration'' might be suspended if Israel continued attacking Palestinian targets abroad. The warning followed the car-bomb murder of three PLO men in Limassol, Cyprus, and the sabotage by frogmen of a PLO-chartered ferryboat at Limassol Port. Israel did not deny accusations that its agents mined the ferry.
Wazir, a founding member of the largest Palestinian guerrilla group, Al-Fatah, headed its Bureau for the Occupied Homeland. He is believed to have been a key figure in contacts between the outside PLO leadership and those leading the uprising from within.
He died in a hail of bullets in the early hours of Saturday morning after a group of assailants, believed to be nine in number, broke into his villa in Tunis, capital of Tunisia. After killing his three bodyguards, they mounted the stairs, gunned down Wazir, and escaped in rented vehicles which Tunisian police later found abandoned at the seafront.
It was almost a carbon-copy of a night raid by Israeli commandos in Beirut 15 years ago. Three senior founder-members of Al-Fatah were killed when the commandos burst into their apartments on Verdun Street during the night of 10 April 1973. The assailants made their getaway by sea, leaving rented cars abandoned by the beach. As a result, the Lebanese government of the day was brought down.
``The Tunis attack reminds us all of the Verdun Street raid,'' said a PLO official. ``It was exactly the same tactics. They had agents there in advance who rented the vehicles - in this case two minibuses and a car - which were left on the beach when they were picked up by boat.''
The tactics, implementation, timing, and target for the Tunis attack left PLO leaders with no doubt Israel's secret service, Mossad, was responsible.
In past years, PLO officials have sometimes fallen victim to internecine feuding among guerrilla factions. But most of those killings were attributed to the renegade Abu Nidal splinter group, which last year mended its fences with the mainstream Al-Fatah organization and pledged to halt such attacks.
Since the reconciliation between mainstream and hard-line factions at the Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting last year in Algiers, a sense of unity of the Palestinian movement has been greatly reinforced by the uprising in the occupied territories, which began in December.
Shortly after the Algiers PNC meeting, Wazir reportedly had laid the groundwork for an escalation of resistance to the Israelis inside the occupied territories.
PLO officials do not dispute the general belief that the uprising began spontaneously, and that much of its momentum stems from local reactions to the Israeli presence and actions on the ground.
But they say the outside PLO leadership plays an important coordinating and planning role. As head of Al-Fatah's Occupied Homeland Bureau, Wazir was a key figure in that equation.
``He knew in detail exactly what was going on, and was always in direct touch with the people inside,'' a PLO official said. ``His role was not exactly to give orders, but to study every possible move and to decide what the next steps might be, in consultation with others, because it's not a one-man leadership and never has been.''
In his other capacity as deputy to Yasser Arafat as Commander-in-Chief of the Palestinian armed forces, he was also in charge of attempts by Al-Fatah guerrillas to mount cross-border raids such as the attack near the Israeli nuclear research center at Dimona on 7 March. He thus represented a double target for Israeli punitive or preemptive action.
But PLO officials say that, while Wazir will be deeply mourned, there is no question of a leadership vacuum. ``There are others to take over, and committees which can function without him,'' one source said.
But there is no doubt Wazir will be sadly missed by the movement.