Palestinian politics of car bombs

Political parties vying for market share are finding it increasingly by attacks on Israel.

In some ways, it was an unremarkable little car bomb.

It exploded around midnight last Saturday in downtown Jerusalem, terrifying people in the vicinity and scorching a tree. No serious injuries or deaths resulted.

But the attack was soon claimed by a blast from the past: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Once the second-ranking Palestinian faction, the PFLP gained a perverse international glamour three decades ago for hijacking airplanes.

Now it competes with a half-dozen third-tier Palestinian political parties to escape the quicksand of irrelevance. One crucial tactic is its resumption of militant action against Israel.

As US diplomats struggle to get Israelis and Palestinians to back away from conflict, the thinking of the PFLP and some other Palestinian parties suggests a grim reality: Violence against Israel has become smart politics. This trend is likely to complicate any attempt by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to calm the situation.

Despite Israel's announcement of a policy of "restraint" last week, Mr. Arafat so far has made no reciprocal gesture. In public and presumably behind the scenes, US officials have pressured him to do so, without success.

The PFLP's military wing, dormant for years, is now detonating car bombs, firing mortars at Israeli targets, and attacking Israeli settlers.

"In the face of Israeli military occupation," says Abed al-Rahim Mallouh, the head of the PFLP's political department, "resistance is not only a legitimate right, it is also a duty."

He and other PFLP members say that their political credibility depends in part on their image as a militant organization that can fight the Israelis. But the times have not always been so brutish.

During the peace process of the 1990s, says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst who heads the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, groups vying for public support didn't feel armed struggle was a political necessity. Given the air of confrontation today, he continues, violence "is useful for any faction to survive and to grow."

"For an organization that's been as marginalized as the PFLP has over the past decade," adds Mouin Rabbani, the director of the Palestinian American Research Center in Ramallah, "this is a very convenient way for them to reestablish their presence."

Nonviolence still viable

At least two small parties are opting against militant confrontation, suggesting that political viability is indeed possible without violence.

But the PFLP and the two biggest Palestinian factions - Yasser Arafat's Fatah and the Islamist party Hamas - are engaged in armed conflict, sometimes openly and sometimes anonymously. The same goes for a smaller Islamist group, Islamic Jihad.

"Fatah's resort to militant action provided a cover for other organizations to do so," says Mr. Rabbani. "It made it legitimate."

Rabbani says Fatah's resumed militancy - during the peace process it abstained from such action - is one factor, though not the determining one, in what he calls the party's "spectacular" rebound in Palestinian public opinion.

Public opinion shifting

According to an April poll of Palestinian respondents by Mr. Khatib's JMCC, 35.1 percent said Fatah is best able to achieve Palestian goals, up 3 percentage points from a similar survey last December. The numbers for Hamas and the PFLP stayed flat or declined slightly.

Islamic Jihad's approval rating also spiked upward, rising from 3 percent to 4.9 percent.

Mr. Mallouh says he doesn't place too much stock in the polling numbers, invoking an old line about French perfume: Smell, but don't drink.

But he and Khader Abu Abarra, a PFLP leader in the Bethlehem area, say party members who had become disenchanted during the 1990s have become active again.

"The present circumstances and atmosphere are helping us," says Mr. Abu Abarra. "The uprising is proof that our point of view is the right one."

PFLP leaders also love to say "I told you so," arguing that their long opposition to peace negotiations has been vindicated by eight months of Israeli-Palestinian strife, making them deserving of broad support.

Polemics and militancy aren't the PFLP's only tactics. Some of its members are involved in a network of clinics that aims to provide high-quality, low-cost healthcare for Palestinians.

The party also styles itself as a political alternative to the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is seen by some Palestinians as a collection of corrupt individuals intent on advancing their own interests by cooperating with the Israelis, and as a secular alternative to the Islamist parties.

The party's central liability may be that it is an almost unreconstructed holdover from a different political era.

Fundamentally Marxist, its members frequently speak in terms of dialectics and class. Even the Palestinian Communist party has renamed itself.

It also cannot claim to be totally independent of the PA. The party's political head, Mallouh, is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which funds his office and his luxury car. The PLO, in some ways, is the parent organization of the PA.

Mixed feelings

The PFLP is not part of the Authority, but the party agreed to shift part of its main headquarters from its longtime base in Syria to Ramallah in the West Bank during the mid-1990s, in recognition of the impact the peace process was having.

The move also helps to bring the organization under what might be called the Arafat umbrella.

"If you don't ask, you don't know their views," says Khatib, the analyst and pollster. "Because they are not an active opposition."

Nonetheless, a long conversation with Majed Nasser, a PFLP member in the West Bank who is also a doctor, yields numerous probing criticisms of the PA and Mr. Arafat.

Dr. Nasser says he has no interest in armed struggle - "I am not a military person" - but argues that Palestinians have a "natural right to resist."

"We don't think we can save Palestinian society," he says, noting the PFLP's low level of support. "But we can be a model."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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