Leader of `Achille Lauro' hijack turns to the ballot-box

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The Independent Online
WHEN Abul Abbas, the 50-year-old former revolutionary who was behind the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, passed through the Israeli-controlled checkpoint his way from Egypt to Gaza earlier this month, he was held up for five hours.

"I was told that Israelis troops had orders to arrest me," he said. "But I refused to go back to Egypt, because the Oslo agreement allows me to enter."

Israel's reluctance to give him safe passage is not surprising: 13 years ago, five men from the Palestinian Liberation Front, the group led by Abul Abbas, born Mohammed Zai-dan, took over the Achille Lauro as it sailed towards Israel. Off the Syrian coast, in one of the more spectacular atrocities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the hijackers shot dead Leon Klinghoffer, an American Jew in a wheelchair. They threw him overboard.

"It was not planned to take over the ship," said Mr Abbas. "The fighters were discovered on the ship and had to take it over. Everything was a mistake." He says the original plan was for the men to get off the cruise ship when it docked at Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, where they were to blow up storage tanks and take hostages.

Justifying acts such as the hijacking, which led to the United States offering a large reward for his arrest, Mr Abbas said: "We achieved a lot. We put the Palestinians on the international political map. Before our operations nobody listened to our voice." He does not mention the delegitimisation of the Palestinian claim to self-determination in the eyes of the world.

These days, Mr Abbas is singing a very different tune. Unlike other militant leaders whose parties make up the Palestine Liberation Organisation, he supports the Oslo accords of 1993. In an interview in Gaza with The Independent, he says the military option for the Palestinians "no longer existed after 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Arabs, not just Iraq, were defeated in the Gulf war. The struggle was going backwards."

Once-powerful groups, such as George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) or George Hawatmeh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), are shadows of their former selves. Mr Abbas has a convincing explanation: "Part of the Palestinian population will support you if you oppose Oslo and fight the Israelis like Hamas [the Islamic militant organisation]. Another part will back you if you go for Oslo and peace. The problem for these organisations is that they oppose Oslo, but don't do any fighting."

The collapse of the secular Palestinian left opened the door for Hamas as the only alternative to the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat. A disillusioned former leftist leader in Gaza said: "The leaders of the left are just as corrupt and not more democratic than Arafat's people. When I see them I tell them it is better for them to close down and say they have failed. But there won't be any real Palestinian politics until Arafat dies."

Earlier this week George Habash, leader of the quasi-Marxist PFLP, announced that he was forming an alliance with Hamas to oppose Oslo after a meeting in Damascus with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas.

Such an alliance is seen as self-defeating opportunism by former members of the PFLP in Gaza and the West Bank. They say secular Palestinians who dislike the corruption of Mr Arafat's rule and the Islamic militancy of Hamas, have nowhere to go. They see Hamas getting stronger. Over the last month Sheikh Yassin has been received at a higher level than ever before. He has seen King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria and senior Iranian leaders. This is despite covert US efforts to minimise his influence. Only Jordan refused him entry.

Mr Abbas says he plans to turn his Palestine Liberation Front into a mainly political, rather than a military, organisation. While doing so he will commute between Gaza and his old base in Baghdad, where his wife and three sons live.

In Mr Abbas's office in Gaza hangs a painting of Palestine made up of a melange of symbols, including a Kalashnikov, the dove of peace, al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a bullet and a pen. The slogan underneath used to read: "Together with the bullet and stone". This has been replaced by the ambivalent and uninspiring words: "All options are open".

This is not something one million Palestinians in Gaza believe. In this beleaguered and impoverished city Palestinian politicians will have trouble persuading anybody that either the Kalashnikov or the dove have much to offer them.

n Jerusalem (AP) Palestinian legislators yesterday fought Israeli police with their fists in a protest over tin shacks erected by Jewish settlers in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.