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Palestinians Give Birth to a Paper State

November 20, 1988|G. H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years

CLUB DES PIFF, ALGERIA — In a sense, the extraordinary 18th session of the Palestine National Council here was over before it began. And in the end, it could all amount to nothing.

Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, dubbed the meeting "the intifada PNC," and so it was. Without the intifada-- "uprising," as the Palestinian rebellion in Israel's occupied territories is called--it would never have been held, and from more than 2,000 miles away, the intifada and its impact dominated the gathering, provided the agenda and determined the mood--one of unity and realism.

The still-shadowy leadership of the intifada, now in its 12th month, insisted that the PLO, whose leadership it accepts, should produce some political gain to match the endurance and sufferings of the uprising. The form suggested was declaration of an independent Palestinian state, and of a Palestinian government, either provisional or in exile. The ideal of the independent state, with Jerusalem as its capital, was accepted many weeks ago by the PLO leadership; that is why this meeting could be said to have ended before it began.

The PLO really had no choice, for it could do no less than give the intifada the sort of support requested. So the proclamation of independence, a long, dull document, emerged at 1:40 a.m. on the 15th morning, amid scenes of intense emotion--cheers and howls, flags and bands, hugs and handshakes. This declaration will, of course, make no difference in the actual military situation on the ground in the Israeli-occupied territories. But it will provide a great boost to the morale of the resistants, for now they have a state of their own--one that as of Friday had been recognized by 29 nations, with 10 others expressing support.

The PLO Executive Council, which now functions as the PLO's Cabinet, will be redesignated as a temporary government. The projected state will be a secular, multiparty democracy, the only such Muslim nation in the Middle East.

The PNC could take the historic action of creating a state because it is fully representative of the Palestinian people--although it is something of a hydroponic entity since all the delegates were exiles and refugees. Invitations were sent to 448 people in the worldwide Palestinian diaspora. The main absentees were 186 members from the occupied territories, whom Israel prevented from attending; they are viewed here as the real prisoners of Zion. But to compensate for their absence, almost every one of the popular committees that run the intifada were represented by proxies.

The 36 individuals whom Israel has deported this year were also present, carrying lighted candles at the final ceremony. Syria tried to prevent the attendance of 57 delegates from PLO groups based in Damascus and under its control, yet 26 of them defied the Syrian ban and attended.

The object of the PLO leadership outside the homeland was not merely to encourage the internal intifada, but to use this session to move toward a final peace settlement. In the words of Arafat's opening speech, not just "the gun and the stone" but also "the olive branch." And reluctantly but realistically, the PLO--particularly Arafat's Fatah majority group and the PNC itself--realized there could be movement toward peace only if they went as far as they could toward satisfying the demands of Israel and the United States.

Three requirements had been laid down: The PLO must accept U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and thus recognize Israel; it had to renounce "terrorism," and it should modify its charter, which calls for the elimination of "the Zionist entity." The 18th meeting of the PNC claims to have met all three.

First, after intense and prolonged discussion--Arafat calculates 600 hours of talks in the last three months--a PNC statement declares that as the basis of an international peace conference, it accepts Resolutions 242 and 338, guaranteeing the Palestinians' national and political right to self-determination, according to the U.N. Charter and its resolutions on Palestine. This reads like a cumbersome circumlocution, but because the delegates knew that--effectively if implicitly--it also meant acceptance of 242 and of Israel's existence, this clause was debated and contended by militants to the bitter end. It was the only resolution forced to the vote, passing 253-46, with 10 abstentions.

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