News Analysis: Palestinian Hard-liners Suddenly Find It Easier to Shake Arafat’s Hand
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News Analysis: Palestinian Hard-liners Suddenly Find It Easier to Shake Arafat’s Hand

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Israeli hard-liners opposed to trading land for peace with the Palestinians are not the only ones who suffered a major setback as a result of Israel’s recent elections.

Palestinian radical groups based in Damascus are also fearing they may become sidelined if the hopes for peace that accompanied Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s election begin to materialize.

The groups, collectively known as rejectionists because of their staunch opposition to the Oslo process and their long-standing call for the annihilation of Israel, are not only focusing on a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.

If there is progress on the Israeli-Syrian negotiating front, they may also find that Syrian President Hafez Assad will expel them from their bases in Damascus.

Given such sobering scenarios, it is not surprising that the groups are suddenly willing to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, the man they have long accused of selling out Palestinian aspirations by embarking on the Oslo process.

Last week Arafat met in Cairo with representatives of one of those groups, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The talks focused on ways to bring the groups back into the mainstream Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Arafat hopes to forge a unified Palestinian front in advance of final-status talks with Israel, which attempt to achieve a permanent agreement between the two sides.

The leader of the Popular Front, long-time Arafat rival George Habash, did not participate in the meeting, but he is expected to meet soon with Arafat — as is the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh.

By meeting with Arafat, the groups are hoping for “genuine participation in the decision-making” processes of the Palestinian leadership, Hawatmeh’s deputy, Keis Abdul Karim, said over the weekend.

With this goal in mind, a spokesman for the Popular Front, Maher Al-Taher, said Monday that his group is calling for new elections for the PLO’s top political bodies, the Executive Committee and the Central Council.

While they are now considering a return to the PLO, the rejectionists are still having trouble reconciling with Arafat’s policies. During a meeting Monday in Damascus, representatives of the groups said they would still maintain distance from the self-rule government if Arafat continues to abide by his peace agreements with Israel.

But, given their ongoing contacts with Arafat, such pronouncements may soon become a rarity.

In an indication that the rejectionists may soon close ranks with Arafat, two of the groups recently became involved in Palestinian social projects.

The Democratic Front recently opened a computer school inside the Askar refugee camp near Nablus, and the Popular Front opened a medical clinic in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem.

Officials from the rejectionist groups may well have realized that they have a better chance of recruiting popular support if they provide the Palestinian public with social services than with arms to fight Arafat.

Indeed, another rejectionist group with widespread support — Hamas — made its dramatic debut into Palestinian life in the early 1980s by opening medical clinics, kindergartens and libraries.

The doctors running the Beit Sahour medical clinic switch easily from medical to political language.

No, they stress, they do not reject peace; they only reject the Oslo accords.

“The Popular Front sees that the best solution is one in which both peoples can live together. This would be a just solution for everyone,” said Dr. Majed Nasser.

But when and if Arafat meets with Nasser’s leader — Habash — he is likely to call on the Popular Front to accept Oslo.

Arafat’s adviser on internal affairs, Mamduh Noffel, broadly hinted this week that the rejectionists will have to admit the error of their ways if they hope to become part of the Palestinian mainstream.

Noffel should know, because he himself has revoked the rejectionist ideology.

He planned one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks carried out against Israel – – the massacre of 22 children at a school in Ma’alot on May 15, 1974. Now he has become one of the strongest advocates for a final peace agreement with Israel.

Noffel was at the time the military commander of Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front, but he later joined forces with Arafat.

Hawatmeh himself was among the first Palestinian leaders to accept the existence of the Jewish state. Shortly after the Ma’alot attack, he realized that armed struggle was not the only way to achieve Palestinian aspirations. He set as a goal the creation of a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, and later developed contacts with leftist Israelis.

Although he continues to oppose Oslo, he has spoken favorably of coexistence with Israel and made a point of shaking the hands of President Ezer Weizman at the funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein last February — a gesture that made him the target of much criticism.

“I don’t understand why they were angry at me,” he said in a recent interview. “Some of those who criticized me for shaking the hand of Weizman are shaking in these very days the hand of Arafat, who has not left one Israeli hand unshaken.”

Meanwhile, the rejectionists, whose headquarters are located in Damascus, are coming under pressure from the Syrian regime.

Last month, Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam met with the rejectionist leaders and insisted that they review their policy toward Israel, hinting that they should refrain from military operations against the Jewish state.

The rejectionist groups “understood that Syria was heading toward a settlement” with Israel, said Noffel, “and during the negotiations toward a Syrian-Israeli agreement, they should seek a new position and new alliances.”

Participants in the meeting denied that they had come under Syrian pressure.

“No one has asked us to give up armed resistance,” Dr. Talal Naji, deputy secretary-general of the Popular Front, said recently.

“Certainly we shall continue the armed struggle even if there is peace between Syria and Israel.”

But judging from the stances now heard in Damascus, Gaza, Askar and Beit Sahour, people like Naji are becoming voices in the wilderness.

With the rejectionist heroes of the past becoming increasingly irrelevant in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, it is now up to Arafat to crack what will perhaps be the toughest nut — the opposition presented by Hamas.

Hamas’ spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Zahar, gave an indication this week of the challenge facing Arafat.

“No one in Hamas will agree to take part in something which does not guarantee our ownership of all the Palestinian land, that gives up even one grain of Palestinian soil.”

Arafat’s relations with Hamas deteriorated after Hamas claimed responsibility for a shooting attack last week in Hebron in which two settlers were wounded.

In retaliation, Palestinian officials subsequently arrested three Hamas leaders — “for security reasons,” according to Palestinian Police Chief Ghazi Al- Jabali.

Despite the latest setback, it now appears that if Arafat can reach an agreement with Hamas he will be well on his way toward getting all but the most die-hard rejectionists behind him.

Then, with his own house in order, he can prepare for reaching a final settlement with Israel.

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