Palestinians Weigh US Intentions

Activists admit PLO has lost credibility in West, but doubt possibility of US peace settlement

PALESTINIANS in the occupied territories are deeply divided after the Gulf war. They may have backed the wrong horse by supporting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but they know, too, that their dilemma is occupying the minds of the victors. "The street was in chaos after the war," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, president of an East Jerusalem think tank.

Plagued by differing views of the future, the leadership in the occupied territories is unsure how to proceed.

"It's a gray area," says Dr. Abdul Hadi. "We may see some pain and casualties in this gray area."

Abdul Hadi says conflicting blueprints for peace held by the major players in the region are clouding the issues.

"Everyone has his own scenario to be implemented in the Middle East, but no-one is capable of doing it," he says.

The chief division is over whether to trust the intentions of the United States. When Palestinian leaders met US Secretary of State James Baker III in Jerusalem last week, the delegation contained notable omissions.

Representatives of the Communist Party and George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine withdrew at the last minute. The PFLP condemned President Bush as "the new Hitler" and called on Palestinians to boycott the meeting.

"Baker's visit 201> is an attempt to find Arab tools and Palestinians inside who are willing to pave the road for an American settlement," a PFLP statement said.

Following the meeting, slogans were painted on the walls of the East Jerusalem home of Faisal Husseini, the leading member of the Palestinian delegation. "Woe is you, your sentence will soon be carried out," one slogan read.

Radical secular pique seemed short-lived. When the same delegation met the Spanish foreign minister, later that week, both the PFLP and Communist representatives insisted on joining.

Islamic fundamentalists also opposed the Baker meeting, and were never asked to participate.

Abdul Hadi dismisses the fundamentalists as lacking leadership. "It's not enough to be a nationalist and full of passion," he says. "You need to use your logic too."

Gaza militancy

In the Gaza Strip, where Islamic militancy and abject poverty dovetail in one of the most overcrowded places on earth, vocal opposition to East Jerusalem diplomacy is not hard to find.

"Everything that's going on at the moment is like a baby's bottle, pacifying the people," says Mahmud Zahar, a prominent supporter of Hamas, an outlawed Islamic resistance movement.

Gaza was represented in the delegation that met Mr. Baker, but not by Islamic fundamentalists.

"The PLO must declare Islam as its ideology and then it will represent all the Palestinians," says Dr. Zahar, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Salah, a young Hamas supporter, is sharply critical of both the PLO and its leader, Yasser Arafat. "There are many people better qualified to lead our people," he says. "The PLO works for its own members more than it works for our people."

In its latest leaflet, Hamas called on peoples and governments throughout the Arab world to reject US involvement in the the region and argued that, despite a recent wave of arrests, the movement remained strong. But prisons are full of Hamas activists and local observers say the organization is in disarray.

Critical PLO loyalists

Even loyalists of Mr. Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction are voicing criticism of the man who has led the PLO for more than two decades. "He did nothing to make us stick with him," says Abu Khalil, a 39-year-old Gaza activist. "We should not waste too much sympathy."

Abu Audeh, another activist, is less dismissive. "Abu Ammar [Arafat's nom de guerre] is a symbol of our revolution. I don't think he has to resign at the moment. But in the long run, he should leave the power to someone else."

In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Palestinians admit that the PLO has lost credibility in the West, but argue that support for the PLO remains firm. "Loyalty for Arafat and the PLO is very strong here," says Abdul Hadi.

Nevertheless, recent events have pointed to greater assertiveness by local Palestinians toward the PLO leadership in Tunis.

"People here are more confident of what they are doing," says Abdul Hadi.

Palestinian sources say it is premature to talk about the local leadership making demands of Tunis, but admit that decisionmaking may no longer be a one-way street.

"The quick new thinking is here," said one source. His reluctance to be named testifies to the acute sensitivity surrounding such remarks.

New role for local PLO

The Israeli government would like to see the emergence of local representatives who are in no way associated with the PLO, a luxury members of the delegation that met Baker will not concede.

Some of the more outspoken participants said they were there on PLO orders. But the fact that the meeting took place at all, as a result of negotiations centered in Jerusalem, suggests that one result of the postwar debate may be a greater role for long-ignored local Palestinian leaders.

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