Hard-liners defy Arafat peace policy

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APPALLED BY the terms of the Wye Agreement, Yasser Ara-fat's Palestinian opponents in Damascus are now urging the Palestine National Council to leave its charter untouched - and to keep intact the clause calling for the destruction of Israel until the Israelis agree to withdraw from all occupied territory.

The annulment of this clause - which Mr Arafat had already declared null and void in letters to the Israeli leadership more than two years ago - was a key element in the Wye memorandum, which was supposed to lead to a small Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

On the face of it, the 10 Palestinian groups with offices in Syria - including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement - have little chance of influencing the PNC.

"It used to be 120 members," an official of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) said in Beirut yesterday. "But then Arafat stuffed it with his cronies and now we think there are over 700 members.

"Last time there was a meeting, his chauffeur and bodyguard were standing there with their hands up, voting for Arafat's decisions. We need more than a third of the PNC to veto an annulment."

But the DFLP, with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the four groups in Damascus that have a following within the occupied territory and could, theoretically, cause the PNC to reject the Wye memorandum's call for the "destruction-of-Israel" clause to be deleted. In reality, most of these groups know that - in the event of a real peace - the clause would have to go. But why, they are appealing to Palestinians in the occupied territories, should it go now?

A PFLP official was very specific yesterday. "The Israelis demanded - and Arafat accepted - that the charter should be amended," he said. "But we are being asked to delete the charter's call for the destruction of the state of Israel when Israel insists that the Palestinians should not even have a state at all. If we are going to bargain over the charter, changes should be made at the end - when the Israelis have given us back our land."

Of course, this is not the only reason for the new show of "unity" by Mr Arafat's enemies, among them George Habash of the PFLP and Nayef Hawatmeh of the DFLP.

Aware that the "peace process" is, to all intents and purposes, dead, Syria is preparing for a possible Palestinian doomsday by encouraging Mr Arafat's opponents to think seriously about the future.

The Palestinians in Damascus are usually good at ranting but short on ideas but they are now talking more coherently than usual.

After a meeting with the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, the head of the PLO's political department, Farouk Kaddoumi, said that "once a Palestinian state is established, we will be able to replace the charter with a constitution - but now is not the right time to do it."

Ramadan Abdullah Challah, the head of Islamic Jihad - two of whose members were responsible for last week's car bomb in Jerusalem - said that the Wye Agreement represented "the last step in the process launched by Arafat to annihilate the PLO and its institutions - which means the destruction of the Palestinian people".

If Mr Challah and his colleagues do not represent a majority of Palestinians - and since Arafat now runs roughshod over any semblance of democracy, it wouldn't matter if they did - the Damascus calls for the PNC to keep the charter intact will appeal to many Palestinians who have never before given support to violence.

Even the Palestinian scholar Edward Said is calling for Palestinians to deter people from attending the PNC meeting that is intended to cancel part of the charter.

Of course, given the fact that Wye has not even begun to be implemented, there are Palestinians who say that the opposition groups in Damascus do not need to campaign against Mr Arafat any more - saying the whole "peace process" lies in tatters anyway.