Arafat's bin Laden nightmare

When the Palestinian leader opened fire on his own street protesters, it was the latest volley in his long battle with movement extremists.

Published October 12, 2001 8:24PM (EDT)

When Palestinian security forces fired on Palestinian demonstrators brandishing portraits of Osama bin Laden on Columbus Day, it was a clear signal to American policy makers, who have long assumed that Yasser Arafat's basic attitude toward the radical factions of the Palestinian constituency was to turn a blind eye.

Although the Palestinian leader opposes the fundamentalist fanatics of Hamas and Hezbollah, he is also a shrewd opportunist, and he was loath to undermine his popularity within Palestinian ranks by attacking these powerful groups or their supporters directly -- until now.

Bin Laden's strategies, in many respect, reflect those of Palestinian fringe groups in the late 1960s such as George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was in direct competition with Arafat's Al Fatah. Whereas Arafat believed in armed struggle, including commando operations within Israel and acts of sabotage against Israeli targets, he strongly condemned acts of terrorism, particularly against objectives outside Israel. By contrast, Ahmad Jibril's PFLP-General Command and Habash's PFLP favored acts of terror on an international scale. In the summer of 1968, Jibril's "Fedayeen" hijacked an Israeli plane to Algiers, and in February 1970 blew up a Swissair flight en route to Israel, killing nearly 50 people. Habash's PFLP, which wanted to weaken the Jordanian regime and feared that the Arab states were preparing to make peace with Israel, was responsible for the spectacular hijacking of three planes to Jordan, sparking what came to be known as the Jordanian civil war of September 1970. If bin Laden is anyone's brainchild, he is George Habash's.

Since the inception of Al Fatah in the years following the Suez War, Arafat has attempted to steer the Palestinian movement clear of far-reaching ideologies of any sort, defining it as purely nationalistic in outlook. The adoption of any ideological base, he argued -- be it social, political, or religious -- would have submerged the nascent Palestinian movement in the obscure depths of intra-Arab rivalries, like a sardine caught in a feeding frenzy of Great White Sharks with names like Nasserism, Ba'athism, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab National Movement.

The insistence of Al Fatah on a separate Palestinian identity, however, was regarded with suspicion not just by many Arab leaders, but also by many influential Palestinians such as the young Habash, who believed that Al Fatah should work with revolutionary Arab regimes like Nasser's Egypt or Syria. In the 195Os and '60s, most Palestinians were of the same opinion.

Almost 50 years later, though Arafat has gone from being one of the leaders of a tiny underground cell (Khalil Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad) to leading the Palestinians into a phase of quasi-state development, he is still facing the same, potentially terminal schism. Bin Laden, that horrifically effective spearhead of pan-Arab resentment, could well turn out to be the gravest challenge to Arafat's particular brand of pragmatic nationalism.

Initially, the absence of a distinct ideological core within Al Fatah was a means of gaining wide-ranging support from Palestinian society as a whole. For Arafat and Wazir, the struggle was exclusively one of national liberation, and the deliberate lack of ideology was intended to make the movement impervious to domination by any single social class or political line. This policy proved relatively successful, and by the end of 1962 an underground network of cells was in operation throughout the Palestinian diaspora. In 1963, the first Al Fatah central committee would be formed in Kuwait.

Although the absence of ideology within Al Fatah was designed to avoid alienating specific groups within the Palestinian population (and not to draw undue antagonism from any particular Arab regime), neither did it draw unwavering support from any one particular political faction, except perhaps for the educated middle class that dominated the movement. For the same reason, Al Fatah failed early in its development to draw the Palestinian population away from the pan-Arab movements or political personalities of the time. Despite the inability of Nasser or Syria's Hafez el-Assad to deal adequately with the Palestinian question, and despite the evident failings of Arab unity (in 1961, the short-lived United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria broke up), many Palestinians still considered the new-order Arab regimes their best bet to achieve the liberation of Palestine.

Today, although Arafat has achieved more, in many respects, than he ever dreamed possible, he is still faced with a similar problem. When confronted with the obvious reticence of Israeli leader Ariel Sharon to allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian nation, how do you contain a frustrated Palestinian population from siding with charismatic leaders who make wide use of Islamic fundamentalist ideology and proclaim themselves the true representatives of the Arab world? Anyone who today doubts Arafat's sincerity when he condemns the World Trade Center attack only has to read the numerous statements he made in the late '60s and '70s condemning terrorism and hijackings as "counter-productive." When Arafat orders the Palestinian police to shoot the violent activists who would place bin Laden on a pedestal, he is fighting the same struggle he has been fighting for over 40 years. Arafat wants to keep the Palestinian question under Palestinian control, first and foremost, but he also wants it to remain a distinct issue, one that will not be confused with the extremist ideology of individuals such as bin Laden, who do not accept the principle of compromise.

Since 1974, when the Palestinian National Council opted for the principle of a political settlement with Israel based on the notion of a "mini-state," Arafat has been in conflict with the various disciples of Habash, who resigned from the PLO executive committee in September 1974 and, with three other organizations, formed the "Front of Palestinian Forces Rejecting Surrenderist Solutions." The "Rejection Front," as it became known, obtained immediate grass-roots support within the Palestinian refugee camps which had previously formed Al-Fatah's political base. Today, Arafat's political base is also threatened, and no one knows this better than Arafat himself.

The probability of a settlement with Sharon leading to the creation of a Palestinian state is slim, increasing the appeal of bin Laden's lethal mix of religiosity and political fanaticism within the occupied territories. Unfortunately, Palestinian supporters of Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Ahmad Jibril's PFLP and now bin Laden already outnumber Al Fatah loyalists. And the only way to tip the balance of power in Arafat's favor once again is to pressure Sharon into abandoning his habitual inflammatory rhetoric and signing a peace settlement.

By Noah Sudarsky

Noah Sudarsky is a correspondent for the French newspaper Ouest-France.

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Osama Bin Laden