WASHINGTON (Oct. 12)
At a time when its leader has expressed a more moderate view of the Middle East peace process, a Palestinian terrorist group known for killing 22 Israeli schoolchildren has been dropped from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The State Department said the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine was taken off the list, which is issued once every two years, because the group has not been engaging in any terrorist activity since it last issued the list.
The U.S. decision, made in consultation with the Israelis, comes at a time when the DFLP’s leader, Nayef Hawatmeh, has said he is willing to discuss final- status issues with Israel.
The DFLP is best known for a 1974 terrorist attack on Israeli schoolchildren in the northern town of Ma’alot.
While still a critic of the Oslo peace process, which drives Israeli- Palestinians negotiations, Hawatmeh has spoken of coexistence with the Jewish state.
Ambassador Michael Sheehan, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said that while such statements are “important,” officials base their decision on “whether an organization is involved in terrorist activity over the past two years,” including the planning of attacks and fund raising.
“It shows that if an organization does behave properly, moves away from support for terrorist acts, they will be dropped and hopefully move into the political process,” Sheehan said last Friday in announcing the U.S. decision.
The list is called for under a 1996 counterterrorism law aimed at stemming the fund-raising activity in the United States by foreign terrorist groups.
The designations make it illegal for Americans to provide the groups with funds or other support. In addition, members of the groups can be denied entry to the United States and U.S. financial institutions can block the groups’ funds.
Although the DFLP was removed from the list, the group is still subject to the provisions of a 1995 executive order that prohibits financial transactins with terrorist groups opposed to the peace process and blocks their assets in the United States.
Unlike the State Department, which is required to review the list of designated groups every two years and remove those not engaging in terrorist activity, the White House, under the executive order, is not required to do so.
“Nothing much will change for the DFLP,” said a State Department counterterrorism official. The official said he did not know if the president would now review the DFLP’s status under the executive order which placed sanctions on 12 Middle Eastern groups.
In recent months, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has reached out to Palestinian groups long opposed to the peace process and Israel’s existence. Hawatmeh and Arafat met in August in Cairo. The meeting was the first between the two in six years.
Last February, Hawatmeh created a stir when he shook the hand of Israeli President Ezer Weizman at the funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein. The handshake angered other Palestinian rejectionist groups, which ended their association with the DFLP as a result.
Israeli intelligence officials, who were asked by the United States if they had any evidence of terrorist activity by the DFLP, backed the U.S. decision, an Israeli official in Washington said.
“Israel and the United States have very close coordination in counterterrorism, and this action by the United States government is something Israel is comfortable with,” the official said.
Although the Israeli government agreed with the U.S. move, some Israelis who were victims of attacks for which the DFLP claimed responsibility criticized the decision.
Baruch Ben-Yaakov, originally John Wicks from Nesconset, N.Y. who now lives in Kiryat Arba, was attacked by an ax-wielding DFLP member on Oct. 16, 1993 in Hebron.
“If the DFLP has really given up being a terrorist organization, why hasn’t it surrendered the terrorist who tried to murder me?” he said in a letter to President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“As an American citizen, I believe I am entitled to expect that the U.S. government will make every effort to capture those who attacked me, not reward the group that sponsored the attack.”
Another family, the Nadlers of Rehovot, whose son Michael was killed in a 1975 attack, said in a letter to the president that they were “shocked” and “horrified” after reading news reports that the United States was prepared to remove the DFLP from the list.
But when reached at their home, Samuel and Evelyn Nadler, originally from Miami, seemed unfamiliar with the issue.
“I don’t have a feeling one way or the other,” said Samuel Nadler, when asked for his reaction to the decision.
Both letters were provided by the Zionist Organization of America, which has called on the United States to apprehend and prosecute Palestinians suspected in killing or injuring Americans.
The list of 28 designated foreign terrorist organization includes six Palestinian groups — the Abu Nidal Organization, Hamas, the Palestine Islamic Jihad, the Palestine Liberation Front, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
It also includes two Israeli groups — Kach and Kahane Chai — and one Lebanese group, Hezbollah.
The State Department said in its report this year that Kach, founded by extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, and its offshoot, Kahane Chai, have in the past two years harassed and threatened Palestinians in Hebron and the West Bank and have threatened to attack Israeli government officials.