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Future of the Palestinian Struggle

As new Authority begins self-rule, PLO factions pursue goals of democracy, sovereignty, and refugee return

NEITHER the rapidly emptying Palestine Liberation Organization offices nor the delay in the payment of salaries seems to shake the determination of Hiyam Bsseisso.

As a cadre in the PLO for the past 20 years, Dr. Bsseisso worked with women in many Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and later became a diplomat for the PLO abroad. She continues to work for the PLO in Tunis in its Foreign Department - one of three that continue to function despite the setting up of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the newly created autonomous zones of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho.

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The three departments remain open in Tunis to enable the PLO to seek international support for an independent Palestinian state and for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars - two goals of the Palestinian struggle that the PA may not pursue according to the peace accord.

Fatah restructure

Far away, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Marwan Barghouti works for long hours in a modest office. His task is to restructure Fatah, the mainstream PLO group that was the first liberation movement of the Palestinian people, created by Yasser Arafat in 1965 to advocate a Palestinian homeland.

Mr. Barghouti, a deportee who was allowed to return last April, believes that the new PA bureaucracy should not be allowed to gobble up the groups that make up the PLO - particularly Fatah. ``Palestinian sovereignty cannot be achieved without democracy, and democracy should start at the level of grass-roots organizations - especially Fatah,'' he says.

Barghouti is part of a 19-member committee that was recently set up to restructure Fatah on a democratic basis to continue the struggle for a sovereign state.

While Bsseisso seems to be clinging to the past structure of the PLO and Barghouti is trying to build something new, both remain committed to their goal of an independent Palestinian state.

A French-educated ethnologist, Bsseisso and scores of like-minded colleagues at the Foreign Department in Tunis say the PLO can still provide a venue for the political struggle.

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Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO foreign minister for more than two decades, has refused to return to the autonomous zones and publicly opposes the Israeli-Palestinian agreement. A Fatah co-founder, Mr. Kaddoumi says he is determined to keep the PLO alive, prevent it from being swallowed up by the PA, and pursue the goal of Palestinian sovereignty and repatriation of Palestinian refugees.

``I shall not go back until the problem of the refugees who were displaced in 1948 is solved,'' he says.

PLO offices in Tunis

Also remaining in Tunis is a Refugees Department, now called the Returnees Department. It will be run by Abdullah Hourani, another opponent of the agreement, who will try to keep the issue of the Palestinian refugees alive.

The third department, National Relations, is headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian architect of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. For years, Mr. Abbas has been the de facto shadow foreign minister. Abbas has not joined the PA because he doesn't approve of the way Mr. Arafat handles power. Many in the Palestinian leadership believe Abbas is deliberately disassociating himself from the preliminary stages of the autonomy so he can one day assume leadership.

But keeping three departments in Tunis does not secure the survival of the PLO - as PLO officials privately concede.

Most of the PLO and its structures have been merged into the PA. Arafat still heads both the PLO and the PA, while at least six of the PLO executive committee members are PA ministers. Former PLO fighters and cadres have been absorbed in the network of the security apparatus as part of the PA.

``Arafat should have never allowed the PLO leadership bodies to be involved in the Authority. How can members of the Authority reconcile between their task to run limited self-rule and the broader objectives of the PLO,'' asks a PLO executive committee member who went back to the autonomous zones but declined to participate in the PA.

Arafat's critics accuse him of deliberately merging the two to end the PLO. They argue that the PLO is the embodiment of Palestinian goals and the unifying factor of the Palestinian people.

Arafat's confidants say that if he had kept the PLO out of the autonomy arrangements, there would not be any chance of the PLO surviving. ``The international and Arab backers of the agreement see no place for the PLO. There will be no financial backing for the PLO - the focus will be on the Authority. Therefore, the PLO's only hope is be associated with the Authority,'' one confidant explains.

Some fear that the PLO is fulfilling the role that most of the American and Israeli proposals have suggested throughout the 1980s - a local Palestinian leadership that reaches peace with Israel and abandons Palestinians' aspirations for sovereignty and the right for refugees to return.

``The PLO does not symbolize Palestinian unity or nationalism any longer ... it is name without content,'' said Fayzeh, a PLO activist for 20 years, who is now considering quitting.

But the backbone of the PLO, which constantly supplied it with cadres, has been the guerrilla groups, and mainly Arafat's Fatah. In theory, Arafat has allowed the Fatah to remain intact in Tunis. Fatah Central Committee member Muhammad Gheim says that he continues to recruit new Fatah cadres from among Palestinians in the diaspora.

The tall leader, who still wears his khaki uniform, says he is not bound to the agreement with Israel. He and a few aides are supposedly charting out a strategy on how to attract a new generation of Palestinians, acknowledging that Fatah has lost its lure as ``a heroic liberation movement.''

Little hope for PLO

For Barghouti and others in the occupied territories, there is no hope left for the PLO. They say everything has to be rebuilt on the land of Palestine.

``We have no faith in the existing structures. If there is a hope for the Palestinians not to remain confined to the autonomy and move to sovereignty, there has to be a total restructuring,'' Barghouti says.

Even PLO officials taking part in the PA believe that it is only a matter of time before people choose their own leaders. ``We have to stop fooling ourselves. The PLO is finished. It is a matter of time before the people who brought about the uprising will rebel against us and the agreement,'' a PLO official who is taking part in the PA says.

Barghouti and Fatah agree. ``This Authority is weak. If Fatah is rejuvenated on a new basis, it will create a power base that will bring about a new Authority through elections,'' Barghouti says. Others in the territories are more skeptical of Fatah's ability, as the leading power in the new PA, to rebel. ``The organization is quite shaken. Neither Fatah nor the other groups will be capable of creating a new movement. The Authority will be able to consolidate its grip for a while pending the emergence of something new,'' says a former Fatah leader in the Gaza Strip.

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