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Violence in Gaza and Soweto - the parallels. Desperation of Palestinians and S. Africa blacks stems from similar roots

On the surface, Gaza is not a bit like Soweto. There is something about the windswept Gazan dunes, the slapping surf of the Mediterranean, the bustling street bazaars, that refuses to conjure up visions of the seamless smog and red brick of Johannesburg's vast black commuter township.

Yet it is the very fact that the present surge of Palestinian violence started in Gaza which points most insistently to parallels between the insurgencies there and in South Africa.

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Both are ostensibly being waged under the flag of exiled ``national liberation'' groups: Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the African National Congress (ANC) of Oliver Tambo. In fact, both are part of a genuinely spontaneous, home-grown upheaval - confronting the PLO and ANC with political choices no less daunting than those facing the Israeli or South African governments.

From its capture by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war until a few weeks ago, Gaza has always been an afterthought, a political footnote - for Israel, for the world, even for Mr. Arafat's PLO.

Newspaper stories on Israel's relations with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that came under its rule in 1967 have invariably referred to the problem of ``the West Bank and Gaza,'' never the other way around. The West Bank is larger, more populous, more developed. Above all, it includes the Arab half of the holy city of Jerusalem, symbol of Arafat's post-1967 ``armed struggle'' to ``liberate Palestine.''

Yet, if the West Bank has long been a place of Palestinian resentment and anger, Gaza has bred Palestinian desperation. Palestinians on the West Bank have Jordanian passports. They have had relatively free access, over the Jordan River, to the management and labor markets of the oil-rich Gulf states. Those who stayed behind live in well-established towns, or farm the land in between. Relatively few live in refugee camps.

Gazans - ruled almost as imperiously by Egypt before 1967 as by Israel since - have refugee documents, not passports. A large portion of the area's 600,000 inhabitants - refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war - lives in camps, as tightly packed as South African townships.

Indeed, under Israel, the Gazans have become the South African blacks of Palestine. They rise at dawn to board buses for day-jobs inside Israel, they return after sundown. Little wonder, then, that they - far more than the West Bankers - have taken refuge in fundamentalist Islam in the wake of Iran's revolution. Little wonder, too, that it is they who have suddenly brought to life two decades of increasingly tired PLO rhetoric about ``popular rebellion'' against Israeli rule.

That the rebellion there (and in South Africa) represents a challenge to established order is obvious. Less so, though no less important for the future, are the multiple challenges it poses to the PLO.

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On the most basic level, the PLO must reach some workable understanding of its relationship with the Palestinians who live in what used to be Palestine, under Israeli rule.

For years this has been a problem, most acutely during the peace-negotiation process started by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem. At issue then was how to respond to an Israeli offer of limited ``Palestinian autonomy'' on the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO rejected it out of hand, as it did US overtures to get sufficient compromises to bring the PLO into the negotiating process. Virtually no prominent local Palestinians wanted to accept the autonomy scheme. But more than a few quietly bristled at what they felt was an impetuous and imperious PLO failure to at least investigate what might have been gained by entering a process of negotiation.

Now the situation is reversed: Grass-roots Palestinian violence will make political compromise difficult for the PLO, even should it decide that such compromise might help win diplomatic gains from the present Palestinian unrest.

So far, Arafat's instinct on responding to the violence seems oddly reminiscent of Israel's: play things safe, don't take too many political risks. For Israel, it means putting top priority on literally beating down unrest and restoring order. For the PLO - if a weekend Arab meeting and recent Arafat interviews, are any indication - this seems to mean going heavy on the rhetoric of rebellion, and much more softly on the idea of making the concessions necessary to gain world backing for any new PLO diplomatic offensive.

Various Western news organizations - including the Washington Post and France's Le Monde - have spoken with Arafat in the past few weeks. The interviewers' impressions were almost identical: The PLO chief was upbeat, almost celebratory, about the rebellion against Israeli rule; and he was at pains to demonstrate the PLO was in control. Yet on touchy diplomatic issues - possible formation of a ``government in exile'' (implying trading in pistols for pinstripes) or the long-fudged question of recognizing Israel's right to a secure existence in any peace settlement - Arafat was only slightly less difficult to pin down than in the old days.

There are probably several reasons for this. The first is that Arafat has always shown a weakness for getting caught up in his own rhetoric: in this case, the brink-of-victory talk that, the South African ANC has come to understand as easier voiced than redeemed. More than this, Arafat presumably fears any move toward accepting Israeli statehood would lay him open to a challenge from rivals for the Palestinian leadership. Recognition of Israel, Arafat and his aides have always argued, is the PLO's main diplomatic card. They fear playing it too early.

In one sense, Arafat does seem to have changed. He is, aides say, contemplating such issues as the government-in-exile and acceptance of Israel with a new seriousness. In another sense, he remains the same, notably in his concern about dealing away the recognition card without reciprocity.

The fact is - and this is a lesson the ANC has learned about South Africa more speedily and thoroughly - that the Israeli government is simply not going to offer such reciprocal recognition any time soon, particularly if it risks appearing to do so under the pressure of stone-throwing Palestinian youths. Israel has the political and military strength to hold to its course on this.

If the PLO chooses to play its card, it would have to do so in tacit recognition that violence alone will not achieve its political aims. If Arafat does move to meet Western and Israeli conditions, he will be taking a political risk - the risk of losing leverage in the short term, in hopes of helping initiate a negotiating process that will build, slowly and not necessarily surely, on pressures the violence has created inside Israel.

But the alternative may be to risk missing the moment of compromise, watching the ``Palestine conflict'' fade from the public agenda once the established order has reestablished itself.

Ned Temko has served as the Monitor's correspondent in the Middle East and South Africa.

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