Fallout from Israeli assassination

Although Arafat outlawed and arrested some 20 members of the PFLP, Israel says that's not enough.

Khader Abu Abarra acknowledges that he's on the run. A senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Mr. Abu Abarra doesn't stay in one place too long.

And it's not clear from whom he is hiding. It could be Israel, which last week lost its tourism minister, Rehavam Zeevi, in a fatal shooting for which the PFLP claimed responsibility. Or it could be the Palestinian Authority, which has been scrambling for damage control by outlawing the PFLP's militant wing and arresting some members of the left-wing rejectionist group.

"I have to hide. I have to change my place a lot," says Mr. Abu Abarra, whose name regularly appears on Israel's list of wanted militants. He moves from one hiding place to another, occasionally meeting journalists in unmarked storerooms behind shuttered steel doors.

Abu Abarra says Zeevi's assassination was about more than vengeance, more than tit-for-tat retribution for Israel's assassination of the group's secretary-general, Abu Ali Mustafa, who was assassinated by Israel in August.

"It is not revenge, because we are not in a tribe," says Abu Abarra, who wears a white workman's cap that seems a nod toward the PFLP's communist roots. "It's a message for the Israelis that if they have no limits to their terror, we will have no limits to our struggle. Now the Israelis will think twice about assassinating another leader."

The Palestinian Authority (PA) outlawed the PFLP's military wing on Sunday, and said it had arrested about 20 PFLP members. The reason, according to the PA: It "gave Israel the opportunity to intensify its repression of our people."

But Israel's Defense Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, dismissed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's plans to criminalize the group's military wing as a "show," saying such announcements have been made in the past - and were never enforced. Meanwhile, Israeli tanks drove deeper into Palestinian territory to pressure the PA to turn over Zeevi's assassins. And the PFLP vowed to keep up its attacks on Israel.

The message sent by the murder of Zeevi, however, is far more complex. In addition to the PFLP's demonstration that Palestinians could also inflict casualties at the highest level - something on the order of what Israel has done with its assassinations of Palestinian activists and leaders in the past year - the PFLP also sought domestic gains from the assassination.

In a Palestinian world where the intifada is the game few question, smaller groups like the PFLP push to become more valuable players and gain more popular support. In the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Damascus-based leader and founder of the group, George Habash, had rejected Mr. Arafat's deal as a sell-out. Though the group's left-wing dogma appealed to some - particularly intellectuals with Christian roots - the PFLP's communist ideology has never been able to compete with the lure of Muslim fundamentalism offered by the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.

IN RECENT years, the PFLP has taken responsibility for numerous drive-by shootings - often of Jewish settlers in the West Bank - in what some political analysts say were attempts to remind the public that the PFLP was still a viable part of the "struggle" against Israeli population. Moreover, the PFLP - a splinter faction from Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization - competes for influence and followers with a like-minded group, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), whose leaders were inching closer to recognizing the Oslo Accords before the outbreak of the "al-Aqsa" intifada last year.

"This is in no way intended to escalate the Palestinian-Palestinian conflict," says al Jwad, who works as a journalist for the daily Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam. But, he adds, "of course" the assassination would boost the PFLP's image, especially among those who see targeting a reviled Israeli rightist as being much more effective and justifiable than targeting random civilians with suicide bombings - the favored weapon of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"This assassination evoked overwhelming relief on the Palestinian street," al Jwad says. "It has raised the level of support for the PFLP because this is a target that has political value."

Yet another layer beneath the motivation for assassinating Zeevi lies in the desire of groups like PFLP to make it more difficult, if not impossible, to allow Arafat to get back to negotiations with Israel - a prospect that has begun to look increasingly dim - or even to make a cease-fire stick.

Indeed, the world-altering events of Sept. 11 gave increased impetus to lower the level of conflict here. The Bush administration has tried to get Israelis and Palestinians to abide by an earlier truce in order to build support for his war on terrorism.

Although the intifada has united Palestinians to some degree, rivalries among their various factions continue to broil. Some Palestinian Christians - many of them attracted to the PFLP because of its nationalist, non-religious platform and its Christian founder - complain that they are being targeted for violence by the "tanzim," a militant wing of Arafat's Fatah movement.

It is with this backdrop in mind that the PFLP does not mind having dealt Arafat's credibility a blow alongside the blow to Israel in the form of Zeevi's assassination.

"It's true that Arafat is very upset because he felt that there was serious pressure being placed on Israel [by the West] before this happened, and that has capsized," says al Jwad, whose desk boasts an empty ammunition clip-cum-paperweight.

"The PFLP [still] opposes the Palestinian Authority, opposes the Oslo Process ... and so it's the natural action to fight and resist the Israeli practices," he says.

Other Palestinians, however, say that they didn't give much credence to renewed expressions by the US and Europe in support of a Palestinian state. The statements, many here complain, seemed an attempt to use the Palestinian issue to gain support from Arab states for America's war on Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

"This is a joke. There was no time when Bush was for Palestinian rights," says Usama Oudeh, the spokesman for the DFLP. He has suggested that perhaps the slaying of an Israeli minister would do little to further the Palestinian cause. "I share two opinions, that it is a bad time for this, and it is not a bad time," he says. "We have also been harmed by the killing of our leaders."

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