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Palestinians Grapple With Deep Divisions

Power struggle among rival groups is seen as undermining the intifadah, unity

Groups within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are trying to reassert control over the almost five-year-old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has been torn by increasing internal violence. The PLO also wants to smooth bitter divisions over Palestinian participation in the Middle East peace process.

Major groups within the organization are currently negotiating an agreement with a militant, fundamentalist Palestinian group called Hamas in order to end internal fighting - including killings of those suspected of collaborating with the Israeli authorities. The PLO groups also want to introduce peaceful disobedience and renew the "Unified Command" of the intifadah (uprising), which comprises four PLO factions active in the territories.

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The long-advocated "pact of honor" has been delayed by the continuing conflict between supporters and opponents of participation in the five-month-old peace talks with Israel.

Sources allied with the PLO's largest faction, Fatah, last week leaked an alleged agreement with Hamas that included commitments not to settle political differences with violence and a pledge by Hamas to begin talks to join the PLO.

But Hamas officials angrily denied the deal. "What was leaked were draft proposals by one side and not an agreement," said Ibrahim Ghosheh, Hamas spokesman in Amman. He reiterated Hamas's refusal to join the PLO or the Unified Command unless the organization renounces participation in the peace talks.

The drive to end internal violence followed public criticism by prominent Palestinians of the tactics used by the Palestinian groups and the Unified Command to steer the uprising.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Haider Abdel-Shafi has charged that the Command has lost control over the intifadah, while others assert that a power struggle among the PLO groups is undermining the intifadah and Palestinian unity.

"The groups [within the Unified Command] are confused [about whether] the role of the Command as a leadership body or a repressive authority that seeks to impose its control by force," charged a leaflet by the Palestine People's Party (formerly the Communist Party), one of the four groups that form the command.

The most serious confrontations are taking place between Fatah, the mainstream group led by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, and Hamas, which was formed after the intifadah began.

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Although the PLO is technically not involved in the peace talks - due to United States and Israeli objections - it appointed the Palestinian negotiating team and sets Palestinian strategy. Mr. Arafat was to chair a meeting of the team yesterday in Amman.

"There is a wing inside Hamas," says one well-placed Fatah official who asked not be named, "that fears that a pact with Fatah will undermine the movement's credibility and its constituency that opposes peace talks with Israel."

The official says Fatah wants to achieve an understanding with Hamas in order to end inter-factional violence and counter an emerging coalition between Hamas and leftist Palestinian groups that oppose the talks.

The opposition is already accusing Fatah of attempting to set up a monopoly of authority during an envisioned three-year period of partial autonomy for Palestinians in the territories.

"The struggle over authority has started among the Palestinian groups while Israel has rejected even discussing a transfer the authority to the Palestinians," notes a PLO official, citing Israel's insistence that it maintain authority in the territories during the three-year period.

"There is no doubt that reforms are needed and factional violence should end," says Saji Salameh, a member of a leftist group that is part of the Unified Command, "but we fear the sudden campaign to expose and exaggerate the shortcoming of the intifadah aims at preparing Palestinian public opinion to paralyze the uprising and end it."

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