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News Analysis: PLO May Have Suffered Fatal Blow with Assassination of Two Leaders

January 16, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Whoever was responsible for the assassination in Tunis on Monday night of two top leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization may have struck a fatal blow at the PLO mainstream and set the stage for radicalization of the Palestinian nationalist movement, experts here believe.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens promptly denied any Israeli involvement in the act. But Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip appeared convinced it was the work of the Mossad, Israel’s secret service.

Curfews were clamped on many parts of the territories to pre-empt violent reactions.

The victims were Salah Khalaf, the PLO’s No. 2 leader, and Hail Abdul Hamid, the PLO security chief.

Khalaf, popularly known as Abu Iyad, was, after Yasir Arafat, second in command of Al Fatah, the PLO’s largest faction. Abdul Hamid, known popularly as Abu Hol, commanded Fatah’s western front.

Also slain was Fakhri al-Omari, a chief aide to Khalaf.

The threewere gunned down by Hamza Abu Zeid, who had been Abdul Hamid’s bodyguard. Abu Zeid was later arrested.

Some sources in Tunisia attributed the slayings to the Libyan-backed Abu Nidal terrorist group, which they said had succeeded in infiltrating Fatah.

Abu Nidal, who opposes Arafat’s leadership, was expelled from the PLO in 1974. Believed to have masterminded the October 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, he tops Washington’s list of wanted terrorists.


But Palestinians here clearly were not buying the Abu Nidal theory. They recall the April 1988 assassination in Tunis of Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad, who was then the PLO’s No. 2 man. His killing was widely attributed to Israeli commandos, a charge Israeli officials would neither confirm nor deny.

Ehud Ya’ari, a knowledgeable Middle East commentator for Israel Television, said Tuesday night that the shots fired in Tunis were aimed at Baghdad.

He presumably was referring to the PLO’s support of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf crisis.

The view here is that whoever was responsible for the killings sent a message that those who employ international terrorism should take into account the fact that the other side can use it too.

But who the “other side” is in this instance is not clear.

Khalaf’s death leaves Arafat with only two still alive of the five men with whom he founded Fatah more than 30 years ago.

In the case of Khalaf, he lost his chief ideologist and closest friend.

As one commentator observed, had a Palestinian state existed, the assassinations would have eliminated its defense minister and chief of staff in one blow.

Salah Khalaf, 57, was born in Jaffa. He was not a member of the PLO’s 15-member executive committee but was considered the organization’s main ideologist and strategist.

He was the key person behind the idea of a secular state in Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs would live together. That idea replaced the original PLO ideology, which saw no place for Jews in Palestine.

In recent years, Khalaf encouraged meetings between Palestinian leaders and representatives of the Israeli left.


As such, he was the key figure behind the initiative two years ago to declare an independent Palestinian state, which implied recognition of the State of Israel.

Khalaf had a PLO career that ranged from most bloody to conciliatory, even a voice of moderation.

He was a founder and leader of the terrorist Black September organization, which was responsible for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972.

But he was also the man who made a videotaped address to Israelis calling for peace.

In August 1988, he said he was ready to start discussions with Israel, which the PLO “naturally” recognized. In an interview with a French newspaper, he called for mutual recognition between Arab and Jewish states called for by a new Palestinian provisional government that would be “wholly different from the actual PLO’s national covenant.”

In February 1989, in an address which was smuggled into Israel and presented at a Middle East peace symposium, Khalaf called for direct talks with the Israelis, with a goal of signing a peace agreement and then taking it to an international conference.

In June 1989, it was disclosed that the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Robert Pelletreau, had met at least twice with Khalaf. The talks took place outside the formal dialogue authorized by Washington and were looked upon with disfavor by both Israeli government officials and some Jewish members of Congress.

But Khalaf’s statements in the address to the February 1989 symposium appeared to be conciliatory and were praised by Israeli doves.

“I look forward to a future in which our meeting will be face to face and we can discuss the future of our two peoples as well as of real peace,” he told startled Jews and Arabs at the symposium, which was organized by the International Center for Peace in the Middle East.


“In the past,” he said, “we believed that this land is ours alone, and we did not believe in the idea of coexistence between two states.”

“Everything that has happened to the Palestinian and Israeli people — the blood which has been spilled, the victims, the maimed — has moved us to react to the call of every Palestinian and Israeli child, so that we can take a serious step toward peace,” he said.

“Just as you have some extremists, we also have many such people,” he said. But “we have concluded that we cannot destroy the Israeli people,” he said.

“There can be no peace without two states which will co-exist side by side,” said Khalaf, “and which will be able to say to the entire world: the war in the Middle East has ended, and the tragedy is over.”

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