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Discord and Desertions: Is Hebron Arafat’s Armageddon? With AM-Israel-Unrest, Bjt,

March 5, 1994

Discord and Desertions: Is Hebron Arafat’s Armageddon? With AM-Israel-Unrest, Bjt, AM-Israelis Agonize, AM-Israel-Massacre-Toll

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) _ Yasser Arafat’s world turned upside down last week: The Israeli foreign minister praised him to Jews while Palestinians who once honored him as the father of their not-yet nation burned him in effigy.

The West Bank massacre of Palestinian men and boys by a Jewish settler in a cave-like mosque in Hebron further shrank support for the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Fax machines hummed in Tunis, exile home of the PLO, as erstwhile Arafat loyalists urged immediate withdrawal from the peace talks with Israel.

Even staff members of the PLO Political Department - in a fax to Arafat with copies to foreign news agencies - advocated a return to armed struggle, ″our only and inevitable option.″

In another multidestination fax, three Palestinian intellectuals whose writings are well-known to Arab readers called Hebron ″a testimonial of death for Arafat’s recognition of Israel.″

″We demand that those who grow illusions stop implanting them in the minds of our people,″ said Ahmed Dahbour, Rashad Abu Shawar and Tawfiq Fayadh.

Arafat’s office overflowed with PLO leaders conferring on a response to the Feb. 25 massacre of 30 Palestinians, slain as they prostrated themselves in sunrise prayers during Ramadan, the holy month of Islam.

Rhetorical sniping came from inside and outside Arafat’s coterie.

″Arafat is just clinging to a very thin rope, and soon we will see him sinking in the mud,″ said a spokesman for Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group that poses the biggest challenge to the PLO claim of leadership in the Israeli-occupied territories.

″He is in the weakest position ever because this time he is challenging the will of his own people, who are becoming disenchanted with his policies of making peace with the Zionists,″ the Hamas spokesman, Ibrahim Ghosheh, said in Amman, Jordan.

Discontent spread within the PLO’s inner circles in Tunis.

″Arafat is finished and his days are numbered,″ said a senior official who was one of Arafat’s closest aides for the past decade. Like many PLO men reassessing their futures, he spoke on condition of anonymity.

PLO insiders said Arafat was stunned by televised scenes of Palestinians burning his effigy after the massacre and shouting ″Death to the traitors 3/8″

One of his most fervent defenders was Shimon Peres, Israel’s foreign minister and its point man in the peace negotiations, who shouted down right- wing legislators in the Knesset last Wednesday.

″Attack Arafat all you want,″ Peres said. ″I sat days and nights across from him. ... I want Arafat to be a partner who can lead his people to peace. We need to help this partner.″

Peres, a prime minister in the era when Israeli governments routinely labeled Arafat a terrorist, blasted Israelis who expressed solidarity with Baruch Goldstein, killer of the praying Palestinians in Hebron.

Goldstein, Peres declared, was ″a Nazi″ - perhaps the most pejorative label a Jew can pin on another Jew in a country built on memories of the Holocaust.

Arafat, in a flurry of interviews with foreign journalists last week, sometimes sounded like a man betrayed.

Speaking to an Associated Press reporter two days after the Hebron killings, he reflected on his triumphal return to Tunis after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace plan in Washington on Sept. 13.

Last fall, Arafat had declared he had ″a friend in the White House.″ That proud proclamation has been replaced by a question: Where is President Clinton when we need him?

It was ″regrettable,″ Arafat said, that the United States did not pressure Israel to make concessions after Hebron, such as accepting international observers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as Israel prepares to return the lands to Palestinian rule.

On Thursday, the Spanish newspaper El Pais published an interview in which it asked Arafat who was in the more difficult position after the Hebron massacre, himself or Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister.

Arafat said he was, ″because I fight for peace, and up to now there is no peace. Rabin maneuvers and doesn’t work for peace. So I’m the one who is paying the price for peace, and I’m paying too high a price.″

In an effort to forge a PLO response to the Hebron massacre, Arafat called a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee Feb. 27.

Only seven of the 12 remaining members turned up. Five refused to attend because, they said, Arafat would do as he wanted whatever the committee decided.

Six other members of the committee already had left because of this high- handedness or because they rejected the peace agreement.

The PLO bureaucracy in Tunis is down to about 1,000 people from 10,000 five years ago. Many who remain talk of leaving when their children’s school year ends in July.

A former senior official, Bilal al-Hassan, wrote last month in the London newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that PLO officials and bureaucrats are peeling away at the rate of about 15 a week. Most seek asylum in Norway or the Netherlands, said al-Hassan, who now lives in Paris.

He said the PLO, months behind in meeting many payrolls, provides those departing with one-way plane tickets to Europe.

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