U.S. requests for concessions from Palestinians in the occupied territories are having the opposite effect, resulting in a backlash that is pressuring the Palestine Liberation Organization to toughen its stand in diplomatic maneuvers, Arab sources say.
Organizers of the Arab uprising against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip complain that talks between the PLO and U.S. officials have borne no fruit and that a continued soft approach is unacceptable. In addition, informal local contacts with Israeli politicians are viewed as irksome at a time when Israel’s army continues rounding up Arabs, demolishing their houses and shooting demonstrators and stone throwers.
The general mood is reflected in pamphlets attacking Washington’s attitude toward the PLO, in criticism of Arabs who meet with Israelis and in a spate of scattered stabbings of Israeli soldiers.
In Ramallah, a college community near Jerusalem, and in other West Bank cities, a new rebel grouping has come out against stopping the intifada , as the uprising is called in Arabic, even for one day. The respite was suggested by some PLO leaders abroad as a good-will gesture.
The dissident group, called the Abu Jihad Brigade, has wide backing, Arab sources say. Although the brigade is aligned with Fatah, the main PLO faction headed by Yasser Arafat, it appears to be warning him off concessions.
“Yes to Armed Resistance in All Forms,” reads a slogan of the group painted on a wall in Ramallah.
“The people on the street think that they are being left behind by the leaders outside,” explained a Palestinian source in contact with the Abu Jihad Brigade. “There is a gap between the grass roots and the top leaders that is dangerous.”
The backlash has come to light as the Bush Administration made public its plans to ask the PLO to cut the level of violence in the intifada . The U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Robert H. Pelletreau Jr., has been in contact with PLO leaders off and on since December. He is expected to meet with them again next Wednesday in Tunis.
The talks began after Arafat unveiled a policy of seeking peace with Israel and giving up terrorism. The moderate tone was aimed at starting talks that would lead to setting up an independent state next to Israel.
Emerging attitudes in the West Bank and Gaza suggest that even if Arafat wanted to, he would be unable to deliver on a pledge to curtail the intifada .
“We insist that the uprising will continue and escalate without stopping,” advised the latest pamphlet issued by Unified National Leadership of the Uprising in the Occupied Territories, the underground command of the intifada .
The pamphlet took Washington to task for its handling of the talks. It accused the Bush Administration of having a one-sided emphasis on terrorism, which, if extended to the intifada , would effectively end the uprising. The tract also attacked Washington’s support of Israel as a defense of “Zionist terror.”
The Arabs contend that cooling the intifada would rob them of their main tool in pressuring Israel. They assert that any PLO leader, including Arafat, who agreed to such measures would risk rejection by the rebels on the ground.
“Arafat did not start the intifada ,” said Ahbla abu Khaled, a young activist in the Dahaisha refugee camp near Bethlehem. “And Arafat cannot stop it.”
Added Ahmed Harb, a professor at Birzeit University who is familiar with the opinion of the local activists: “For the PLO to try to suspend the intifada would be suicide. No one here or outside can expect to get a positive response.
“Arafat has already made many concessions,” Harb said. “What has he to show for it?”
Such tough talk is rare; Palestinians usually show deference to the PLO when they speak openly. The Arabs explain that although the PLO represents them abroad, it does not automatically control the battle against Israeli rule.
“The political leadership can only make decisions that the leadership on the streets accept,” said Ali Jerbawi, another Birzeit professor.
The open dissent among Arabs reveals the difficulties of keeping control of the intifada , which from its start 15 months ago has been a loosely connected movement.
Breakdown in Command
The emergence of the Abu Jihad Brigade, for example, stems in part from a breakdown in the chain of command caused by recent Israeli roundups. Among about 800 Palestinians jailed during a monthlong sweep by the Israeli army were many leaders of grass-roots rebel groups, Palestinian sources say.
Before they were detained, the street captains had kept in close contact with go-betweens linked to the PLO in Tunis; the replacements have not had such contact and in some cases are even unknown.
The substitute leaders, seeing their own comrades thrown in jail and facing the task of keeping the intifada going, are less tolerant of the recent wave of meetings held between Palestinian intellectuals, PLO officials and leftist Israelis both here and abroad. The get-togethers are designed to put the Palestinian case in front of sympathetic Israelis.
“They scolded me for talking to the Israelis while the youth in the towns and villages are being shot at and arrested. They wanted to remind me that they exist and are key to the intifada ,” said a Palestinian activist who was reproached by members of the brigade.
Birzeit professor Harb explained: “The young activists don’t want to see a lot of people making loose concessions.”
The rejection of a soft line has raised the potential for increased violence in the intifada , Arabs say.
At least two recent knife attacks on uniformed soldiers and another on an off-duty soldier are due to impatience with diplomacy, according to Palestinians. The latest intifada pamphlet not only calls generally for stepped-up violence but also warns of eye-for-an-eye revenge should a Palestinian prisoner die in jail.
The pressures on the PLO inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip come atop pressure from the outside. Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon, for example, fear that they are being left behind in Arafat’s peace drive.
In addition, dissident PLO factions outside Fatah have attacked Arafat’s leadership for implicitly accepting Israel’s legal statehood as well as renouncing terrorism. Attempts by guerrillas to raid Israel from Lebanon have generally been ascribed to these groups.
Israeli officials have pointed to the raids as proof that the PLO is wedded to terror. Arafat is trying to distance himself from the forays.