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PLO rift resurfaces - violently Kawasmeh assassination is a warning to moderates

In Amman, the Palestine Liberation Organization is already calling Fahd Kawasmeh a martyr. The assassination here Saturday of Mr. Kawasmeh, a leading PLO moderate, was a violent reminder of the deep split in the PLO between the mainstream Fatah, headed by Yasser Arafat, and Syrian-backed Palestinian dissidents.

Kawasmeh, who was closely aligned with Arafat, symbolized that faction of the PLO that has been searching for a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian problem.

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A group calling itself Black September, a PLO splinter terrorist organization , claimed responsibility for the shooting in a telephone call to a French news agency in Rome.

But there is little doubt among Palestinian officials here that Kawasmeh's death was a Syrian-approved, if not instigated, reply to the convening of the Palestine National Council in Amman last month.

Kawasmeh was a Palestinian leader who talked of coexistence with the Israelis and who had met with American officials before his election last month to the PLO Executive Committee. He had also been mayor of the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Hebron before being deported by Israel in May of 1980 for political activity.

His assassination in Jordan was thought to be a warning to both King Hussein and Arafat that the wishes of Syria and PLO hard-liners cannot be ignored.

''They couldn't get to Arafat, because he is too well guarded, so they chose the next best thing,'' one Palestinian said bitterly.

In his arrival speech in Amman, Arafat was quoted by the official Jordanian news agency Petra as saying: ''Let the hireling killers and the rulers of Damascus who protect and defend them know that they will not be able to destroy the will and determination of our people or to stop the Palestinian revolution.'' King Hussein condemned the assassination as a ''cowardly act.''

The Syrians and PLO dissidents have accused Arafat of being willing to join a Jordanian-Iraqi-Egyptian moderate axis to negotiate swapping the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in return for peace with Israel.

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In March 1983 with Syria's backing, the PLO dissidents attacked Arafat and his loyalist troops in Tripoli, Lebanon, and eventually drove Arafat from Lebanon. Since then they have demanded Arafat's ouster as chairman of the PLO.

''It's a war now between Syria and Arafat,'' said a Palestinian with close ties to the PLO.

Arafat accepted condolences Sunday from a stream of dignitaries who called at the PLO's offices here. Scores of men stood outside the building in small, quiet groups as portions of the Koran were read over a loudspeaker.

Jordanian soldiers and plainclothes bodyguards were conspicuously present. Nearby, at Kawasmeh's home, other mourners gathered with his wife and children.

Only last month, Arafat seemed to have pulled off a coup by outmanuevering the Syrians and holding the PNC here over their adamant opposition. Security during the PNC was extraordinarily tight, although Jordanian officials scoffed at suggestions that their playing host to the PNC might touch off a wave of terrorist attacks.

''What have we got to hit?'' a Jordanian official asked at the time.

Kawasmeh's assassination, many Palestinians here said, will probably not be the last attack against mainstream PLO leaders.

''We have to be cautious,'' said Ahmad Jamal, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Damascus-based DFLP did not officially attend the PNC last month, but Mr. Jamal did, and was elected to the executive committee. ''The killing of Kawasmeh was more than just a warning to Abu Ammar (Arafat's nom de guerre). They want to weaken him.''

Some analysts here said, however, that if the assassination were Syrian-approved with the intent of deterring Arafat and Hussein from joining a new Middle East peace initiative, it may backfire.

Kawasmeh was an enormously popular man on the West Bank; shopkeepers in Hebron struck on Sunday. His assassination will further alienate the West Bankers, who already overwhelmingly support Arafat, from the so-called rejectionists, who insist that no diplomatic negotiations should be held with Israel.

''In the long run, it will serve to strengthen Arafat's position,'' said a Palestinian journalist here. ''There is nobody who can condone this act.''

Indeed, Bethlehem Mayor Elias Friej, who was known to have some political differences with Kawasmeh, sharply condemned his murder, as did Mustafa Natshe, who was appointed mayor of Hebron after Kawasmeh's deportation.

''All of us here in the West Bank condemn the murder,'' Mr. Natshe was quoted as saying. ''We want our political disputes to be settled by democratic means, not assassination.''

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