No Arafat Pictures : Palestinians Turn Backs on Old Leaders

Times Staff Writer

They dazzled the world

With nothing in their hands but stones . . .

We remained polar bears

Whose bodies were insulated against heat.

They fought for us

Until they were killed

While we sat in our

coffeehouses. . . .

Those lines, from a poem circulated on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as unprecedented clashes with Israeli troops claimed at least 27 Palestinian lives, reveal an important, but as yet little understood, aspect of the continuing unrest here, Israeli and Palestinian analysts agree.

The verse mocks Palestinian leaders who still use the vocabulary of struggle but are actually busy looking out for their own comforts.

Reflects Disillusionment

Written by one of the Arab world's best-known poets, it is just one sign that the street demonstrations of the last month reflect as much disillusionment with the traditional Palestinian leadership here and abroad as they do anger at the Israeli occupation authorities.

"Have you seen a single picture of (Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser) Arafat in all the riots?" asked one Palestinian activist. "No! Not a single one. The strong message is that 'no one is going to tell us what to do. We're doing things ourselves.'

"It's not that there's no support for Arafat," this activist stressed. "But things have to be different here."

This is a very different image from the one that some Israeli officials prefer to project concerning the latest unrest. Israel's U.N. ambassador, Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, has depicted the disturbances as the handiwork of what the political right here prefers to call, collectively, the "terrorist organizations."

However, even Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who is considered a hard-liner within his own centrist Labor Party, told the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) on Dec. 23: "The violent public disorders during the past two weeks broke out against a backdrop of local events and were the fruits of spontaneous organization."

Once the disturbances were under way, Palestinian and Israeli experts agree, the PLO and other groups based outside the country encouraged them. But those same experts see the sometimes desperate efforts of the traditional leaders to climb on the speeding bandwagon as further proof that they have become out of touch with the mood here.

'Arafat Was Just as Surprised'

"Arafat . . . was just as surprised by the events . . . as were some circles in our defense Establishment," wrote Israel television's respected Arab affairs editor, Ehud Yaari, in a commentary for the political magazine Koteret Rashit.

"It took him three to four days . . . to take advantage of the success, and even then he was able to contribute only an apparatus, not a direction," Yaari added.

There is still widespread support for the PLO here, but it is more an emotional attachment to the best-known symbol of Palestinian nationalist aspirations than an expression of slavish adherence to an organization and its program.

Also, the unrest has not yet given rise to a recognized, replacement leadership that might be a challenge to the PLO and other groups in the future.

'Officers Are Missing'

"The kids are the soldiers," said Jerusalem Post Middle East editor Yehuda Litani. "The problem in this uprising is that the officers are missing."

That means the traditional leaders may yet be able to reassert themselves, noted Yaari. The Israeli journalist quoted an East Jerusalem PLO activist as saying that "if Arafat is clever enough, he will have the sense to submit to this trend and will let it move him further ahead."

At the least, however, the unrest will mean "a much bigger voice for the people in the (occupied) territories" within the traditional nationalist organizations that are based outside the area, said another Palestinian activist.

The street disturbances also have been a repudiation of older leaders within the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Hanna Siniora, editor of the pro-PLO Arabic newspaper Al Fajr. They were "a message to the traditional local leaders that it's not enough to attend cocktail parties and talk to foreign dignitaries," he said in an interview last week. "They have to do more."

Ironically, Siniora, who came into prominence here only three or four years ago, suffered some of the same rejection on Thursday. A press conference he had scheduled to announce the beginning of a civil disobedience campaign was boycotted by at least some Palestinians who resented what they saw as Siniora's attempt to take over the spotlight.

Generational Change

In part, what the disturbances are revealing is an important generational change. "This is the message of the coming of age of the generation of 1967," one West Bank leader said, referring to the Palestinians born since Israeli troops captured both the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War.

More than half the population of the occupied territories is under 20 years old, and about 60% are under 25. There are nearly 300,000 West Bank and Gaza youths in the 15-to-24 age bracket, which has been most active in the recent rioting.

And these Palestinian youths are very different from their parents.

"We were afraid of bullets," said a middle-aged PLO activist from the Gaza Strip. "But these are not."

These youths bare their chests as well as their faces and invite the soldiers to either shoot or get out. They may not be as eloquent as the old-line Palestinians who speak English and know how to behave at diplomatic dinners, but they have a vocabulary rich in Hebrew vulgarity, which they are proud to practice on the Israeli troops. They even write their pro-Palestinian slogans in Hebrew as well as Arabic.

'Uses Enemy's Language'

"It's a sign of the new generation," said a West Bank Palestinian. "It uses the enemy's language to taunt him."

The young activists refer to themselves as shebab-- an Arabic word that Israelis use to mean riffraff, but which actually means youth and, in Palestinian street parlance, might be better translated as the guys.

Most have had some sort of encounter with the Israeli authorities, if only being stopped and questioned by an army patrol. Many accused of throwing stones, displaying a Palestinian flag, or other illegal nationalist activity have been detained in a regular or an army prison where their treatment is at best humiliating.

Western diplomats say they have been told by their contacts in the Israeli security Establishment that the time these Palestinian youths spent together in prisons helped weld an unusually united front among them and, in that sense, contributed to the latest unrest.

While the Palestinian universities on the West Bank and Gaza Strip traditionally have been centers of nationalist opposition, these institutions have barely been heard from in the latest disturbances. The demonstrations, which began Dec. 9, appear to have originated much more in the refugee camps and high schools.

Little Respect for Father

Asked by an Arabic-speaking Israeli reporter how he responds to his father when the man forbids him to go out to demonstrate, a youth from the Balata refugee camp on the outskirts of Nablus responded: "I tell him to shut up! If he wouldn't have left his land in 1948 (during the Arab-Israeli War that led to Israeli independence), we wouldn't be in Balata today. Israel wouldn't be in Balata today. He has nothing to tell me because he's the reason for there being demonstrations today."

Parallels Seen

Moshe Maoz, a Hebrew University professor and author of a book on Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, said there appear to be parallels between what is happening now and the emergence 30 years ago of Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction in the PLO.

"Thirty years ago, Fatah was just starting to organize," Maoz said in an interview. "It was an expression of the rebellion of young, bitter refugees against their parents." This group was disenchanted with the traditional Palestinian leadership of that time and "tried to take leadership in their hands."

'Salon Terrorists'

"What happened to them?" Maoz asked. "Thirty years later, they didn't achieve anything. They remain salon terrorists. Corrupt." And now, he said, it is the youth of the refugee camps rebelling in the same way against them.

A significant number of Palestinian young people, particularly in Gaza, are turning to Muslim fundamentalism. But the latest disturbances appear to have erased, at least temporarily, much of what used to be the bitter rivalry between the fundamentalists and the secular nationalist movements.

Analysts here point to a number of factors adding to the frustration this generation of Palestinians feels over the occupation itself. Many used to leave the camps for work in the Persian Gulf states, but those jobs have dried up. The young people are staying here, where their option is often to take menial jobs inside pre-1967 Israel, waiting on Israeli diners in Tel Aviv restaurants, picking oranges on Israeli kibbutzim, or sewing garments for sale under Israeli brand names in Jewish stores.

"They know the Israelis for all their life," said Yehoshua Porath, another Hebrew University professor and expert on Palestinians.

Breeds Contempt

Instead of breeding understanding, however, that knowledge often breeds only contempt.

Another factor is a wave of Palestinian pessimism that followed last November's Arab League summit meeting in Amman, Jordan, some here believe. The summit officially downgraded the Palestinian problem as a priority issue behind the Iran-Iraq War. And any sense that a breakthrough in the peace process might be near has faded with the political stalemate within Israel over an international peace conference and what is perceived as the cooling of U.S. enthusiasm for progress.

The PLO, meanwhile, has appeared increasingly unable to affect the situation, noted Israel television's Yaari. This has contributed to the rise of independent action within the territories and what seems, to those convinced there is an outside hand behind every disturbance here, a paradox.

"The weaker the PLO gets on the outside, the stronger becomes the opposition from within," Yaari said.

The result, said Porath, may be "a new kind of leadership" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip--"maybe coordinated with the PLO, but not directed by it, as before."

As that poem, entitled "The Children of Stones" and written by the well-known Syrian poet Nizar Kubbani, put it:

Oh, generation of treachery

Generation of brokerage

Generation of refuse

Generation of prostitution.

You will be swayed

By the Children of Stones.

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