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Youth, religion, and radicalism give new twist to Palestinian movement

Since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon forced the Palestine Liberation Organization to disperse its fighters, three factors have begun to reshape the Palestinian movement: The emergence of a new generation, which has internalized the conflict: Rather than Palestinians in exile, it is youth on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip who are now initiating and leading protests.

The introduction of religion as a supplementary or alternative banner of action: Nationalism is now mixed with a religious element, making it far more volatile.

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Radicals are taking the lead among the conventional guerrilla factions in catering to the heightened militancy.

The recent rioting among Palestinian youths is just one of several indicators emphasizing the importance of the new generation of activists. ``The growth in the number of incidents of stone-throwing at Israeli vehicles represents a new phase in Palestinian resistance. These are not carried out by organized groups but by youths undeterred by the consequences of their actions,'' concluded a 1987 study released by the West Bank Data Project, a respected Israeli research organization.

Socialized into accepting violence as a natural means of expression after a lifetime of occupation, these youths have also become more desperate because of the absence of peace prospects and the distance and seeming impotence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

The potential impact of this generation is reflected in its numbers: Almost 60 percent of Gaza's population is under 19, according to Israeli estimates; 46 percent of the West Bank's population is under 14, says the West Bank Data Project. The PLO may be better armed, but youths in the occupied territories are more motivated and better placed to force the Israeli government's hand.

Islamic fundamentalism's increasing role has also become more evident. On Jan. 1, a crowd assembled at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque. In an impassioned sermon, Sheikh Muhammad Hussein said, ``God does not like oppressors, and God gives you a promise that followers of Islam will achieve their objectives if they adhere to the right path. ... If you adhere to the Koran, nothing is impossible for you.''

Fundamentalism has been visible on two levels. A 1986 poll by Al-Fajr, a Palestinian newspaper, revealed that 26.5 percent of Palestinians surveyed in the occupied territories supported rule by Islamic law, or Sharia. But less than 2 percent said they supported Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, indicating that the growth of fundamentalism has been indigenous, not imported.

Like Islamic movements elsewhere, however, there is also an extremist side. The first incident was a grenade attack in Gaza, later claimed by Islamic Jihad, in early 1986. Eight Jewish settlers and soldiers were injured. (Gaza's Islamic Jihad is not believed to have ties with similarly named groups in Lebanon and elsewhere.)

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This fundamentalist trend is almost a logical byproduct of Israel's experience in Lebanon, when Muslim zealots achieved in three years what the PLO had been unable to do in the occupied territories for two decades - the ouster of Israeli troops. To end a costly occupation, Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1985 without a single security guarantee for the volatile border. Militant Islam, earlier associated largely with the Persian (Iranian) Shiite Muslims, thus also became an Arab phenomenon.

Islam may be particularly attractive because it cuts across the wide divide of fractious Palestinian politics. The West Bank and Gaza populations are 95 percent Muslim, according to the West Bank Data Project.

An Israeli military commander on the West Bank conceded to reporters last October, ``If there is something that should bother us in the future, it is a religious reawakening, which has begun in the Gaza area and which is growing and liable to intensify.''

The third factor, political radicalization, has been primarily evident elsewhere, but could also have an impact within the occupied territories.

Most noteworthy is the conversion of Abu Nidal's Fatah Revolutionary Council, which has been linked to a series of terrorist attacks in the Mideast and Europe, into a conventional guerrilla group. The faction, which broke from the mainstream PLO in the early 1970s, has begun to recruit among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

And, while the 1983 split among the PLO's eight traditional wings was partially healed at a 1987 summit in Algiers, three militant factions have continued to keep their distance from the mainstream PLO - and continued unilateral military actions. The most dramatic event was the November hang-glider attack, claimed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which killed six Israeli soldiers. The incident marked the highest single Israeli death toll at the hands of Palestinians since the Lebanon invasion.

Since the momentum behind peace was lost after the 1986 collapse of an accord between the PLO and Jordan, militants have been in the limelight. The appeal of radicalization has grown as militants are seen, at least temporarily, to be doing something for the cause.

Though these trends have so far attracted a minority, their joint impact has clearly challenged the traditional Palestinian leadership - and perhaps even the type of formula that would be acceptable for an eventual peace.

Robin Wright, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a former Middle East correspondent.

Second of two parts. First article ran Friday.

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