WHEN Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief Yasser Arafat was found alive after his plane crashed recently, a wave of joyful relief swept over Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.
But the popular euphoria that greeted their leader's survival masked the quickening rate at which Palestinians here are deserting the organization he heads, according to both PLO supporters and opponents, and foreign observers.
Hard-line Islamic groups such as Hamas, who will have no truck with Israel, are moving fast to capitalize on the defections attributed mostly to Arafat's willingness to negotiate with Israel.
"There is disillusion with the secular nationalist movement generally," says Ali Jarbawi, a teacher of politics at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. "All of the groups that make it up, and its backbone, Fatah, are going through a crisis."
The evidence seems clear. In every election on the West Bank since the Middle East peace process began a year ago - in municipal chambers of commerce, student bodies, professional associations, and labor unions - Fatah and its secular allies have lost to Islamic-candidate slates.
"I don't think the death of secular nationalism and the rise of something else to take its place is a foregone conclusion," says a foreign analyst who monitors Palestinian politics. "But we are headed in that direction."
Three main causes are adduced to explain the growing unpopularity of the local political forces that have led the Palestinian struggle for more than a quarter of a century.
* A widening gap between ordinary Palestinians and the prominent personalities who represent them at the peace talks.
* Increasingly vocal anger at the misuse of money from abroad.
* General frustration at the lack of progress in the peace talks to which the PLO is committed.
As Palestinian delegates to the peace talks fly off to Washington every few weeks, many returning home in ever smarter suits, people enduring the grind of Israeli occupation in their villages and refugee camps find it hard to make their voices heard.
"The revolution has become a business of appointments rather than promotion, with decisions coming from the top down," argues Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian political scientist critical of the local leadership.
Preoccupied with the talks and the international scene, leading personalities such as Faisal Husseini "have become more like diplomats who don't have much to do with the rest of the people in solving the ... problems in the territories," Mr. Jarbawi adds.
By contrast, boasts Muhammad Zahar, dean of the medical faculty at Gaza's Islamic University, "where the other system has failed to achieve any progress in meeting people's demands in the social and economic fields, Islam has done a lot, supporting poor people and providing good education."
Residents of El Bireh, north of Jerusalem, can attest to this. During snowstorms last winter, Islamic activists were going door to door, offering to shovel snow and handing out bread. Secular groups such as Fatah, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), were nowhere to be seen.
At the same time, grassroots grumbling about how Fatah and its allies use funds from the PLO has led to accusations of corruption in the local press. "When people in the street, who live from their jobs, see some individuals building villas and getting richer, naturally they feel something is wrong," says Maher Abukhader, editor of the English-language edition of the Jerusalem newspaper Al Fajr.
The way the traditional secular organizations use their control of funds to further their own interests has also raised hackles.
University staff salaries in the occupied territories, for example, are paid by the Council for Higher Education, a body controlled by Fatah. At Gaza's Islamic University, complains Abdulaziz Rantisi, a science lecturer there and one of the founders of Hamas, "Islamic staff have not been paid for six months. Staff affiliated with the PLO have their pay up to date."
"The nationalist institutions are for their own loyalists," Jarbawi says. "But the mosque is for everyone."
The level of frustration with the peace process, meanwhile, is rising with each round of talks. The Palestinians made some concessions at Israeli insistence, such as the exclusion of the PLO and of residents of Jerusalem, but after six months they have seen no tangible returns for those concessions.
Persuading supporters to compromise is difficult under such circumstances, negotiators say, especially when Hamas offers a simple promise to satisfy Palestinians' maximum demands.
"No Muslim can accept to cede one square millimeter of Palestine," Dr. Zahar says. "There can be no compromise over land, but we can compromise on allowing Jews to live there."
However unrealistic this program to abolish Israel might seem, "in times of crisis, people resort to their culture and religion to protect their identity," Dr. Al-Qaq points out.
Although some PLO factions oppose the peace talks, such as George Habash's PFLP and one wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, they have not presented themselves as a secular alternative to people in the occupied territories.
Instead, they have joined Fatah to form common lists at elections. So "all those who are not Islamists but who have their questions or doubts about the peace process ... and want an alternative to Fatah, go with the Islamists," Jarbawi says. "If the left had been a real alternative, perhaps the Islamists would not have had so much support."
Weakened by popular dissatisfaction, Fatah and its secular allies are pinning all hopes on a successful outcome of the peace process to ensure their future. Hamas, meanwhile, sure that the talks will eventually break down, is confident that "the Madrid peace process," as Zahar puts it, "is the PLO's last battle."