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Will the Palestinians Give Peace a Chance? : In the Wretched Camps of Lebanon and the Gritty Streets of Gaza, a Beleaguered Arafat's Dangerous Step--Cutting a Deal with Israel--Has Ignited a Firestorm of Violent Protest.

December 05, 1993|Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy is The Times' Cairo Bureau chief. Her last piece for this magazine was a profile of L.A. attorney Anthony Brooklier

Pushed out of the West Bank in the 1967 war with Israel and out of Jordan following Black September of 1970, the PLO regrouped in Lebanon, running quarters of Beirut as if it were the capital of Palestine. It was an era when Palestinians, if they didn't have Palestine, at least had the country next door, and the 350,000 residents of Ein el Hilwa and other refugee camps could look to their fast-talking president speaking from the capital on the evening news.

That all changed with the Israeli invasion in 1982. The Jewish state, at the end of its patience with cross-border raids, pushed tanks and troops into southern Lebanon and finally into Beirut in a determined effort to drive the PLO out of its bases there.

Arafat was forced out of Beirut and finally out of Lebanon altogether. He gloomily declared he was moving "from one exile to another." Most of his best 10,000 fighters headed for camps scattered throughout the Arab world, and Arafat, arriving at the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli to join an outbound convoy of U.N.-flagged ships, declared: "The struggle is not over. We will continue until we reach Jerusalem, the capital of our Palestinian state." The guns of the PLO militia thundered in dubious triumph as the ships left port.

Los Angeles Times Sunday January 2, 1994 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
A photograph featured in "Will Palestinians Give Peace a Chance?" (by Kim Murphy, Dec. 5) that was identified as a demonstration by anti-Arafat militants was actually of a protest by right-wing Israeli settlers against Israel's peace agreement with the PLO.

The PLO washed up in Tunisia, a country known for its white sand beaches, the Parisian ambience of its downtown cafes and its remoteness from the political turmoil of the rest of the Middle East. It was from his North African exile that Arafat watched the sands of the Middle East shift inexorably away from the possibility of a militant liberation of Palestine. Even as the occupants of the West Bank and Gaza launched the intifada , or uprising, in the occupied territories in 1987, a host of other factors were beginning to spell out an imperative of peace: the decline of the Soviet Union, which was the mothership of national liberation movements around the world; the breakup of the PLO into an increasing number of bickering factions; the long years in which the group had spent most of its energy and resources fighting other Arabs, not Israel, and finally the 1991 Gulf War, when the PLO's support for Iraq dried up the lifeline of funding from wealthy Arab states that had allowed it to play benefactor to the millions of exiled Palestinians.

By this spring, the PLO was broke. Salaries for the fighters in Yemen, Lebanon and Sudan dried up, along with paychecks for university professors in the West Bank and PLO officials at offices around the world. Palestinian Red Crescent hospitals were left with no funds to fix failing basic equipment. On the most emotional and patriotic chord, payments to the families of martyrs killed in military operations or the intifada ceased in March. The financial debacle has become a recipe for revolt at a time when the Middle East is talking peace.

The degree to which Arafat has embarked alone on his quest for peace is now apparent. Even within the peace camp in Tunis, there are signs of an unprecedented willingness among Arafat's top lieutenants to challenge him, to question the details of the peace plan and, more important, to demand an end to the chairman's arrogant and autocratic ways. Many of Arafat's best friends say openly that they are tired of PLO money disappearing with nobody to answer for where it went (despite some doubters, Arafat insists "There is no money") and tired of a revolution run on the word of a single man armed with a bank of fax machines in his villa. Even if the peace agreement is successful and a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank, they say, is this what everyone fought for? Another Arab dictatorship, this time under Arafat?

"We are building a state now, and what we are dealing with is people's future and their hopes," says one top PLO lieutenant. "It is no longer a matter of requesting Arafat. He has to be forced. Arafat will continue to work the way he has been working, and what has to be done is to persuade Arafat that if he continues, he will lose legitimacy and he will be isolated and antagonize large segments of the population."

Just how dangerous this dissent within the ranks might be became clear with the matter of Hani Hassan, one of Arafat's closest allies. Hassan was a founder of Fatah, and throughout the years in Lebanon he and his brother Khaled were seldom far from Arafat's side. Since the end of the Gulf War, Hassan has worked to re-establish links with disaffected Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and has been one of Arafat's most loyal backers for establishing a negotiated peace with Israel.

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