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No Arafat Pictures : Palestinians Turn Backs on Old Leaders

January 10, 1988|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — They dazzled the world

With nothing in their hands but stones . . .

We remained polar bears

Whose bodies were insulated against heat.

They fought for us

Until they were killed

While we sat in our

coffeehouses. . . .

Those lines, from a poem circulated on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as unprecedented clashes with Israeli troops claimed at least 27 Palestinian lives, reveal an important, but as yet little understood, aspect of the continuing unrest here, Israeli and Palestinian analysts agree.

The verse mocks Palestinian leaders who still use the vocabulary of struggle but are actually busy looking out for their own comforts.

Reflects Disillusionment

Written by one of the Arab world's best-known poets, it is just one sign that the street demonstrations of the last month reflect as much disillusionment with the traditional Palestinian leadership here and abroad as they do anger at the Israeli occupation authorities.

"Have you seen a single picture of (Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser) Arafat in all the riots?" asked one Palestinian activist. "No! Not a single one. The strong message is that 'no one is going to tell us what to do. We're doing things ourselves.'

"It's not that there's no support for Arafat," this activist stressed. "But things have to be different here."

This is a very different image from the one that some Israeli officials prefer to project concerning the latest unrest. Israel's U.N. ambassador, Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, has depicted the disturbances as the handiwork of what the political right here prefers to call, collectively, the "terrorist organizations."

However, even Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is considered a hard-liner within his own centrist Labor Party, told the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) on Dec. 23: "The violent public disorders during the past two weeks broke out against a backdrop of local events and were the fruits of spontaneous organization."

Once the disturbances were under way, Palestinian and Israeli experts agree, the PLO and other groups based outside the country encouraged them. But those same experts see the sometimes desperate efforts of the traditional leaders to climb on the speeding bandwagon as further proof that they have become out of touch with the mood here.

'Arafat Was Just as Surprised'

"Arafat . . . was just as surprised by the events . . . as were some circles in our defense Establishment," wrote Israel television's respected Arab affairs editor, Ehud Yaari, in a commentary for the political magazine Koteret Rashit.

"It took him three to four days . . . to take advantage of the success, and even then he was able to contribute only an apparatus, not a direction," Yaari added.

There is still widespread support for the PLO here, but it is more an emotional attachment to the best-known symbol of Palestinian nationalist aspirations than an expression of slavish adherence to an organization and its program.

Also, the unrest has not yet given rise to a recognized, replacement leadership that might be a challenge to the PLO and other groups in the future.

'Officers Are Missing'

"The kids are the soldiers," said Jerusalem Post Middle East editor Yehuda Litani. "The problem in this uprising is that the officers are missing."

That means the traditional leaders may yet be able to reassert themselves, noted Yaari. The Israeli journalist quoted an East Jerusalem PLO activist as saying that "if Arafat is clever enough, he will have the sense to submit to this trend and will let it move him further ahead."

At the least, however, the unrest will mean "a much bigger voice for the people in the (occupied) territories" within the traditional nationalist organizations that are based outside the area, said another Palestinian activist.

The street disturbances also have been a repudiation of older leaders within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Hanna Siniora, editor of the pro-PLO Arabic newspaper Al Fajr. They were "a message to the traditional local leaders that it's not enough to attend cocktail parties and talk to foreign dignitaries," he said in an interview last week. "They have to do more."

Ironically, Siniora, who came into prominence here only three or four years ago, suffered some of the same rejection on Thursday. A press conference he had scheduled to announce the beginning of a civil disobedience campaign was boycotted by at least some Palestinians who resented what they saw as Siniora's attempt to take over the spotlight.

Generational Change

In part, what the disturbances are revealing is an important generational change. "This is the message of the coming of age of the generation of 1967," one West Bank leader said, referring to the Palestinians born since Israeli troops captured both the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War.

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