JERUSALEM — After weeks of the most widespread civil disturbances ever in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, a secret steering committee representing five factions of Palestinians has emerged to try to sustain the anti-Israeli momentum of the unrest.
The committee, known as the "Unified National Leadership for the Uprising in the Occupied Territories," appears to be having particular success in the West Bank. Commercial strikes were renewed in several towns there Tuesday.
Businesses were also shuttered in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, extending a shutdown there that has lasted, almost without interruption, for more than a month.
The committee is believed to have less influence in the Gaza Strip, although its organization extends there.
Broad Outlines Confirmed
Details about the history, organization and methods of the secret group were disclosed to The Times by a Palestinian source who spoke on condition that he be identified only as someone familiar with the committee's deliberations. Other Palestinians and Israeli security sources confirmed the broad outlines of his account.
The group's aim is to channel the anger and frustration that shaped weeks of spontaneous street clashes in the occupied territories into a more sustained program of demonstrations, civil disobedience and economic upheaval. Palestinians talk of months or even years of continuing confrontation, albeit not at the fever pitch of December and the first half of January.
The group communicates through its leaflets, distributed both on the West Bank and in Gaza. The pamphlets give instructions on how to support the unrest; one called on workers to quit their jobs in Israel. "Deepening the Israeli economic crisis is one of our weapons," it advised.
Israeli gunfire in the most violent phase of the unrest has claimed at least 36 lives, and more than 250 have been wounded. Hundreds of other Palestinians have been hospitalized for broken limbs and related injuries as the result of beatings, and about 3,000 were arrested.
Whether the so-called Uprising Committee can stay unified and succeed in its goals remains to be seen. The last indigenous Palestinian leadership in the territories was the National Guidance Committee, made up of mayors and other Palestinian notables, which operated openly in the late 1970s. The group was outlawed in 1980, and many of its members were deported or jailed.
In an interview Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was openly skeptical about the allegedly national character of the group. He said that any organization of the continuing unrest "is much more on a regional and local basis." If a truly national committee had emerged, he said, "they would be arrested."
Israeli security sources were quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying that all the members of the new committee are known and that Shin Bet, the security service, is allowing them to remain free so it can study the group's methods.
Palestinian sources counter that the fact the committee has not been broken up is indicative of its success in taking the civil struggle underground.
Whatever the merits of that argument, the committee is notable for having achieved what is believed to be the first formal cooperation between Muslim fundamentalists and Palestinian nationalists in opposition to Israeli authorities.
It also represents at least a partial recovery for traditional Palestinian groups such as Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, that were left behind in the first days of the unrest.
'It's Completely Localized'
Still, the organization's main ties are believed to be with grass-roots groups in the occupied territories rather than with the traditional Palestinian leadership outside the area. "It's completely localized," said the Palestinian who asked not to be identified. "It has no political programs. It is based on working to keep the uprising going."
The disturbances began Dec. 9 in the Gaza Strip and spread quickly to the West Bank. According to the Palestinian source, the committee took shape in late December and issued its first leaflet, announcing its formation, on Jan. 4. Its most recent leaflet, No. 4, is dated Jan. 21, and another is due Thursday.
The Palestinian source said committee membership is by organization, with each of five groups entitled to three members. The groups are Fatah; the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by George Habash; the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by Nayef Hawatmeh; the Communists, and the relatively new Islamic Jihad movement of Muslim fundamentalists.
"Every committee, every faction appointed three of its members," the Palestinian source said, "but the real leaders (of each faction) aren't in the committee. They delegate to their members in the committee their direction."