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Two PLOs of Palestinian Revolt: Will 'Outside' Moderates Prevail?

March 27, 1988|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years.

AMMAN, JORDAN — The killing of an Israeli soldier in Bethlehem last Sunday suggests that the moderating influence of the Palestine Liberation Organization "outside" on the PLO "inside" the occupied territories is beginning to slip.

The two PLOs are linked, as indicated by the heading on the communiques issued by the "Unified Command of the National Uprising--the PLO." Significantly, the outside suggested that the PLO should not be named lest this reduce the popularity of the resistance with the PLO's critics abroad, especially in the United States. But the inside insisted on clearly stating its affiliation to the mother organization.

The unified command consists of five groups, four of which are components of the PLO--Fateh, PLO leader Yasser Arafat's own group; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash; the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by Nayef Hawatmeh, and the Communists. The fifth element is the Islamic groupings, which are more important in the Gaza strip than in the West Bank.

The loyalty or deference of the inside is reward for the restraint and tact shown by the outside toward the resistance. It began in January with a Baghdad meeting of the 90-member PLO Central Council. The fact that the PLO officially considered the intifada --the uprising--only a month after it began is testimony that it was spontaneous and not engineered from the outside. The council was supposed to consider establishing a Palestinian government-in-exile, but because of events in the occupied territories that question was set aside for the time being and, instead, the council made some decisions about the resistance.

The first was an expression of a new mood within the council, usually the scene of petty factional bickering. Confronted by the fearlessness and endurance already displayed in the territories, the council was suitably shamefaced because the resistance in a month had achieved more in terms of publicity, sympathy and support than the PLO had won in 20 years. The council was particularly impressed that the resistance had shown strength in two areas where the PLO is usually weakest: unity and secrecy. So an unusually united council decided that it would not even try to issue orders or directives to the resistance, but only suggestions and advice. In all cases the final policy decision would be left to the interior leadership that best knew the realities of the situation.

This restraint was perhaps no more than a realistic acknowledgement that since the intifada started on its own, the inside would not accept any exterior orders with which it did not agree.

Having decided on its general approach, the council suggested to the resistance that it should not, for some time, escalate its action to the next stage--armed struggle. Weapons are available; both sides of the PLO know that and Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, the Israeli chief of staff, admitted it last Sunday: "There are large quantities of arms in the West Bank and in Gaza." This is why the PLO outside almost brought itself to condemn the attack two weeks ago by an outside commando on an Israeli bus in southern Israel, which killed three Israeli civilians. Yet in the occupied territories there was some open criticism of the outside PLO for its excessive moderation. But the PLO insists that the resistance should not yet turn to the use of arms. There are two reasons for this decision: the publicity advantage of being seen to be the underdog and Israel's overwhelming superiority in firepower.

The resistance is not wholly convinced by these arguments, especially the second one. The advocates of armed struggle, who are becoming more numerous as the repression becomes more severe, say that the people of the West Bank and Gaza are now so aroused and angry that not even unlimited force would frighten them or break their spirit. But looking ahead realistically, a resistance escalation to armed struggle seems inevitable. The killing in Bethlehem was the first small step in that direction.

The other decisions of the Central Council concerned planning for the second, and perhaps the third, round of the uprising, which could involve armed action and the provision of financial help.

On the political front there has been give and take between the two PLOs. The interior did not like the prominence being given outside to the East Jerusalem editor Hanna Siniora, who is not regarded by the resistance as a real militant; he was told by the external PLO to pipe down. On the other hand, when Siniora and the Popular Front's Habash started advocating full-scale civil disobedience, the outside disapproved of this as being premature, on grounds that a prolonged struggle cannot disrupt daily life too severely. But the inside went ahead and called for the resignation of Palestinians serving in the Israeli police; more than half of those officers complied.

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