FOR the first time since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded nearly 30 years ago, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories are launching a new political party.
Although planners of the nascent Palestinian Democratic Union (PDU) insist that their movement is no challenge to Yasser Arafat's umbrella organization, "this could be a revolutionary change in Palestinian politics," according to Zuheira Kamal, one of the founders of the PDU.
Even if the new group offers nothing so dramatic, it will bring local party leadership to a people long accustomed to being led by distant figures at the PLO headquarters in Tunis, Palestinian analysts say.
"The most significant thing about the party is that local people are going to be the weight behind it, and those outside will be supplementary," says Hanna Siniora, editor of the East Jerusalem Palestinian daily Al Fajr.
"We are moving the center of gravity to the occupied territories," Ms. Kamal explains. "It is natural that it should be here."
At the same time, the PDU, due to be unveiled in April, intends to break with the underground tradition of secret cells that has always governed Palestinian political activity.
"All the work of this party will be known," says Jamil Salhut, another of the PDU's organizers. "We want the whole world to know what we are doing."
The PLO so far has taken a cautious line toward the group. "We won't fight it, but we will watch it very carefully," says Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks who is associated with Fatah, the mainstream faction of the PLO.
The Israelis also are watching the PDU with interest. Although political parties in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are formally banned, "in the context of the peace process you have to be much more lenient," says Maj. Elise Shazar, spokeswoman for the Israeli Civil Administration, which oversees the occupied territories. "You cannot expect the peace process to continue without political activity."
The PDU's founders are mainly members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine - a small left-wing faction of the PLO. The DFLP broke with faction leader Nayef Hawatmeh over their support for the peace process. Some old-line communists are also involved.
But the new party is advertising itself as strictly non-ideological and hopes to attract leading Palestinian figures independent of any of the PLO factions. "The party will have no boundaries," Mr. Salhut explains. "Maybe religious people will be members, maybe Marxists will join. Anyone who believes in the continuation of the peace process can be a member."
The PDU's declaration of principles also lays heavy stress on the need for broad popular participation in Palestinian politics. In a dig at PLO practices, the document pledges to "fight against cliques and upper-level bureaucracy that weaken the Palestinian struggle."
The party's founders are currently organizing local elections in the occupied territories to choose an interim leadership. A first party congress is scheduled before the end of the year.
The emergence of the PDU has sparked considerable debate among Palestinians, and has "raised so many questions that we would rather not ask," Mr. Erekat says. Critics dismiss the party as merely "a new structure for old faces, people looking for a new central committee to be members of," according to Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University.
The DFLP as a whole has never had much grass-roots support, the breakaway group responsible for the PDU was a minority faction, "and they haven't added much to their size and dimension," Mr. Siniora says.
But their initiative has led Palestinians to wonder what might come next. "Is this the new transformation of Palestinian politics?" Erekat asks. "What happens if this paves the way for 10 more parties, outside the PLO, to emerge? Will the center of authority shift to the occupied territories?"
Following the establishment of Fatah-dominated "political committees" around the territories after the Madrid peace conference in 1991, the PDU's launch "is a very clear sign of the trend" away from secretive leadership from outside, and toward locally inspired, open political organization, Dr. Jarbawi argues.
The PDU's founders do not hide their ambitions in the elections that are due to be held under the Palestinian autonomy plan now being negotiated with Israel. "With the peace process there is a change, and we should prepare ourselves for the [five-year] interim period" before the occupied territories' final status is determined, Kamal says.
But many Palestinians have reservations about the timing of the PDU's launch. "Our people are very hungry for elections and democratic institutions," Siniora argues, but by forming an open political party, "you are exposing the people who are the mainstay of your organization without being sure that the atmosphere will grow."
"We need to get our people involved, and this will help them believe in democracy," Erekat says. "But have we established the bases yet for the political pluralism that is emerging? I still think we need some more time for the transformation to begin."
"At one point in time, when everything becomes legitimate here, it is to be expected that all parties will try to drop the PLO," Jarbawi argues. "But I don't think it's the time now. I don't think we should give signs that we are ready to cut off relations with the outside."
It remains to be seen how many prominent figures the PDU can attract to its ranks, and what kind of popular support it can muster. But for the future of Palestinian politics, Erekat says, "the point is not how much they represent. It's just the fact that they are there which is concentrating so much worry - and so much interest."