Background / Palestinians Mark 1988 Milestone With Feuds

Thirteen years to the day that a fiery Yasser Arafat in exile symbolically declared an independent state, his movement to found a true Palestine marked the anniversary with internal rifts and fraternal violence.

Thirteen years to the day that a fiery Yasser Arafat, then in exile, symbolically declared an independent state, his movement to establish a true Palestine marked the anniversary with internal rifts and fraternal violence. Open warfare between Arafat's security forces and Islamic Jihad activists nearly erupted on the eve of the anniversary of the Palestine Liberation Organization chief's 1988 declaration of independence in Algiers.

The unrest began when the Palestinian Authority - pressed by Washington and Israel to crack down on militants - jailed Mohammed Tawalbe, the top Islamic Jihad military commander in the northern West Bank, later spiriting him southward to Nablus as thousands of enraged Palestinians rioted. The sides refrained from leveling gun barrels at one another, but Palestinians hurled a grenade at the PA governor's office, torched seven vehicles and fired weapons into the air.

Arafat has been trapped for months between demands that he arrest suspected terrorists and grass-roots Palestinian support for militant actions that are seen by much of the Palestinian public as retaliation for Israeli assassinations, incursions and blockades in areas of the West Bank and Gaza nominally under full PA control.

More trouble for Arafat was hinted at by Palestinian activists in Jenin, who told Israel Radio that under a secret deal for the eventual IDF withdrawal from the town - occupied and blockaded since the assassination of then-tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi last month - West Bank Palestinian preventative security chief Jibril Rajoub's men had colluded with the Shin Bet secret service to pave the way for Tawalbe's transfer via territory under Israeli security control.

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat on Thursday dismissed reports that close advisers to Arafat - concluding that the uprising had failed to win any tangible gains despite the loss of hundreds of lives - were pressing the Palestinian leader to adopt a more pragmatic stance toward negotiating with Israel.

But in a reference to the Jenin violence, the moderate Erekat took an uncharacteristically dark tone on violent internal dissent. "We are one authority," he told Army Radio in an interview. "We tolerate political pluralism, parties and so on, but authority pluralism – parallel authorities – will not be tolerated."

Ha'aretz commentator Danny Rubinstein said Thursday that conflicting pressure has acted to erode Arafat's standing and power among Palestinians. "At the beginning of the Al-Aqsa uprising, all of the Palestinians' rage was directed toward Israel. Of late, there has been great suffering on the part of the people, and part of their rage has been directed at the PA as well."

Just as pressure from the Israeli right keeps the Sharon government from making peace overtures while violence rages, Arafat is under strong domestic pressure, noted Rubinstein. "Both sides are shackled by public opinion and internal politics. Among the Palestinians, this is manifest in Arafat's inability to make arrests."

The PA chairman's dithering over jailing the militants in his midst has sparked the endless debate in Israel over whether Arafat's inaction is due to unwillingness or inability to round up suspects. But Rubinstein, referring to Palestinian opposition to internal crackdowns, said: "If he sees that he is unable, then he is not going to want to. But he is trying to do the minimum he can, in an effort to appease Israel and appease America and Europe. He is between a rock and a hard place and under these circumstances, his power is being weakened."

With Foreign Minister Shimon Peres expected to grant an indirect endorsement to Palestinian statehood during a scheduled speech to the UN General Assembly later Thursday, Erekat said the eventual way to peace was, in fact, already known.

"I don't think that we will need to reinvent the wheel," Erekat said. "The terms of reference of the peace process are very clear cut. As Palestinians we have recognized the state of Israel on 78 percent of historic Palestine, that is, the June 4, 1967 borders. It's time for the Israeli government to recognize the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 22 percent that is the West Bank and Jerusalem."

Erekat's words found unexpected amplification in a rare interview granted Army Radio by Marwan Barghouti, one of the central leaders of the uprising and an uncompromising foe of a cease-fire under present conditions.

Barghouti said Wednesday that if Israel agreed to an independent Palestine and withdrew to the borders that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, all militant Palestinian organizations including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and radical groups would foreswear their military activities.

"There is consensus among everyone, all the factions, all the parties - among them Hamas, the Jihad, the Democratic Front and the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine], Fatah, all of them - there is now consensus on the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders," Barghouti told Army Radio.

The radio also quoted Barghouti as saying that after talks with Hamas officials, he could guarantee that there would be no further terrorist attacks after the establishment of such a state.

As for the chances for a current cease-fire, however, Barghouti indicated that he expected that the firing would continue on both sides, with Israel mounting further assassinations and incursions and Palestinian fire continuing to resound.

If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Peres "cannot reach agreement among themselves, do you think they can reach an agreement with the Palestinian people?" Barghouti asked, adding: "I don't think that this government has a peace plan."