JERUSALEM — The prescribed three days of mourning for Palestinian victims of last week's shootings at the Temple Mount had not passed, yet the minds of three activists of the Arab uprising, lunching at the National Palace Hotel here, had already turned to other preoccupations.
They had received word that the Palestine Liberation Organization and a group of Islamic fundamentalists had signed an agreement ending strife that was threatening to pull the uprising in on itself. The PLO would give the fundamentalists full rights to schedule their own strike days in protest of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip while the Muslims promised to stop speaking badly of the PLO during sermons in the mosques.
"We have to take care of problems like this. These things are eating us up," said one of the activists, all of whom are affiliated with the PLO.
Although the bloodshed in Jerusalem's Old City has refocused world attention on the ongoing intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel, activists say that disarray in organization and tactics continues to bedevil their cause. The growing appeal of Islamic groups undermines PLO control of the uprising, which in any case has been slipping. Fatigue among the general population has been aggravated by events in the Persian Gulf; the region had been a source of extra income for many Palestinian families with relatives working abroad.
There has been a striking psychological shift as well; Palestinians have tied their own fate to the fate of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who along with his invasion of Kuwait has championed their cause for independence. His bluster against Israel and his strongman image have eclipsed the intifada as the talk of Palestinian towns and villages.
As inflammatory as the Temple Mount incident was--21 Palestinians were killed by army gunfire after raining stones down on nearby Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall--it is not likely to reverse this trend of watching and waiting. "All eyes are on Saddam," said a PLO activist. "Everything else is in second place."
Another activist noted that while the Temple Mount clash brought worldwide condemnation, it is the threat of Saddam Hussein that seemed to provide a push for concrete steps in the United Nations.
In any event, Arab leaders say that for the moment, they have two main concerns: To keep factional divisions under control and to maintain enough organizational cohesion to keep up the pace of general strikes and occasional demonstrations that have been the backbone of the nearly three-year-old nationalist uprising.
No new tactics are in the works. "Strategy? There is none for the moment," remarked one of the diners at the National Palace.
Competition for supporters among the 1.5 million Palestinian residents of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has become more and more violent between the PLO and the Islamic group Hamas--an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas has gained ground as Palestinian residents grow disenchanted over lack of progress toward the PLO's professed goal of setting up an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas rejects the compromise and favors a Muslim state in all of historic Palestine, including present-day Israel.
Street fights between PLO and Hamas gangs became commonplace last summer; one in Tulkarm, that ended with three deaths, was set off when Hamas youths wrote anti-PLO graffiti on town walls. The recent agreement between the PLO and the Muslim group is supposed to end such conflicts.
Still, the battle for the soul of the intifada goes on. At the Temple Mount--which is sacred to Jews as the site of the biblical first and second temples, but also to Muslims who have worshiped at the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques there since the 7th Century--many of the rioters belonged to Hamas. They had gathered to head off a reported effort by a Jewish group to lay the foundation stone for a new Jewish temple on the site, which is known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif, or the noble sanctuary.
Faisal Husseini, the PLO-affiliated leader who is under investigation for inciting the unrest, came to the site only to show his face. He had neither the authority to calm the rioters, as his lawyers claimed he tried to do, nor to incite.
"He simply had to be there," said an associate. "Otherwise, Hamas would be seen as the sole defender of the mosque."
Husseini's need to assert a questionable authority points up another weakness of the intifada: a lack of identifiable and accepted leaders. Many underground leaders have been jailed, deported or killed.
Once not long ago, some reporters were visiting Faisal Husseini's house. While he was being interviewed, masked youths began to throw stones at the cars parked outside. Husseini went to his front porch to disperse the crowd, which responded by throwing stones at his home.