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Hard-line Arabs reject hints of Mideast thaw

Moves between Israel's new leader and rival Syria's longtime chief

As Syria and Israel's government-elect make mutual overtures about renewing peace talks, not everyone in the Mideast is eager for that to happen.

Militant Palestinian groups in the Syrian capital, Damascus, are known as the "rejectionists." Some first rejected Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat in the late 1960s, and they more recently have opposed the Oslo land-for-peace formula.

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These are aging revolutionaries, whose adherence to armed struggle against Israel persists, even though Mr. Arafat, as head of the Palestinian Authority, has been engaged in peace talks for years and Palestinian self-rule areas include most of Gaza and some patchwork of West Bank land.

The road to peace, though, encountered a snag when Israel launched airstrikes against civilian targets in Lebanon last week - the most severe attack in three years, which left 10 dead. But Syria took care to blame Israel's outgoing leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and not its prime minister-elect, Ehud Barak.

Such apparent commitment to peace worries some of the rejectionists in Damascus. Syria has hosted 10 or so such groups for decades. Even though the US State Department notes that there is "no evidence that Syrian officials have engaged directly in ... terrorist acts" for 13 years, the presence of these groups has kept Syria on Washington's list of "terrorist" states.

The conventional wisdom is that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad - who has himself had serious differences with Arafat for years - has played the willing host, only to use the groups as expendable cards in negotiations with Israel. Any peace deal with the Jewish state would almost certainly mean their expulsion, or "deep" retirement.

But that is not the case now. "We have made contacts with our Syrian comrades," says George Habash, head of the Marxist-Leninist Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), at his offices in a Damascus suburb. "They have always told us: As long as your land is occupied, then you have the right to struggle for it, and you are welcome to stay here and struggle for your national and Arab rights."

Mr. Habash's surroundings exude a sense of past revolutionary glory. Taped to his office walls are posters of the revolutionary genre. One, labeled "El Salvador," shows a young Latin American woman with an M-16 automatic rifle. Another is a yellowing poster of Che Guevara that reads "El Che Vive! 1967-1997." Yet another is of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Despite all the political changes that have come to the Mideast in the past decade, PFLP venom for Arafat is as strong as ever. "Arafat wants a state, even if it's only a few centimeters. This is the major problem," Mr. Habash says.

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Among those with a presence or headquarters in Syria that the State Department considers to be "terrorist groups" are Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Ahmed Jebril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a more militant offshoot of the PFLP.

"Forget about them," says Muhammed Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at the University of Damascus. "The time of Abu Nidal [another group with ties to Syria] and Ahmed Jebril are over."

When Iranian President Mohamad Khatami visited Syria recently, he met separately with each group - except Naif Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which of the rejectionists has spoken most favorably about the peace process. Mr. Hawatmeh says the snub was the result of a high-profile handshake he shared with Israel's President Ezer Weizman, when Mideast leaders gathered in Jordan on Feb. 8 for the funeral of King Hussein.

"Since that handshake, Syria for us has caused many problems, including armed clashes [with supporters]," Hawatmeh says in his basement office in Damascus. "We were the first to call for peace and we want peace, so we can't be put in with the others on the rejectionist side. If Syria closes our facilities that they gave us, we are prepared."

That may be because the DFLP has an organization inside Israel and the Palestinian territories, unlike other militant groups, which could find it difficult to get by if they were kicked out of Syria. The expulsion from Syria last October of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, after Turkey threatened military action, should be seen as an example, some analysts say.

But that example does not worry Habash. "The Arab homeland is very big, and the Arab masses, they do embrace the Palestinian national line," he says. "I'm sure that President Assad and the Syrian leadership will never take such a decision, because all of us are Arabs. It will not happen."

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