Palestine ends armed struggle

Middle East turmoil: Council vote 'a shift from idealism to realism' as Arafat meets Israeli demands to amend PLO charter
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The Palestinian parliament-in-exile last night voted to remove from its charter clauses calling for armed struggle to replace Israel with a Palestinian state. Israel has made amending or dropping the charter a condition for starting the final phase of peace talks with the Palestinians and partially withdrawing from the West Bank city of Hebron.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, won a sweeping majority of 504 votes in the 536-seat Palestine National Council in favour of revoking the clauses. Mr Arafat needed a two-thirds majority at the PNC, which met in Gaza for the first time.

Hussan Kadr, from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, said before the meeting: "I am in two minds. I am heart and soul against the old charter, but I also don't think we are getting enough for dropping it."

Earlier Mr Arafat told the parliament that they had no choice but to change thecovenant. He had in any case agreed that clauses opposing the existence of Israel would go as part of the Oslo accords in 1993. "Nobody likes to say no to Yasser Arafat," said Mr Kadr, who belongs to the Palestinian legislative council elected in January. He thought amending the charter was a shift from "idealism to realism".

Almost all the Palestinian leaders gathered in the Shawwa centre were agreed that the timing of the meeting was bad. "It sounds as if we are surrendering," said Ziyad Abu Amr, a political scientist from Bir Zeit university on the West Bank. He said that since the suicide bombings in March Israel had sealed off Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinian prisoners were still held and there had been no discussion of 850,000 Palestinians displaced because of the 1967 war.

For all Mr Arafat's attempts to be upbeat about what has been gained by the Oslo accords, the Palestinian representatives have a deep sense of their own weakness. Even Leila Khalid, famed former hijacker and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, after denouncing Oslo, said simply: "The balance of power is against us." Not unsympathetically, she outlined the pressures on Mr Arafat to amend the charter, such as the need for American money and the wish to see Mr Peres re-elected.

Mrs Khalid, allowed by Israel to return from Jordan to vote, was the most obvious symbol in Gaza yesterday of a generation of Palestinians who believed that a reversal of the Israeli victory of 1948 was possible. "Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine," said article nine of the charter which was dropped last night.

Mrs Khalid said her sisters had been forced to flee Tyre because of the Israeli bombardment, but nobody expected events in Lebanon to have much impact on Palestinian affairs. Saleh al-Tamaari, a former Palestinian military leader in south Lebanon who was captured during the 1982 Israeli invasion, said: "It's appalling. The Israelis have their own version of what is right or wrong." But as a result of Oslo, Palestinian politics are now determined by the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The 4 million abroad - including 350,000 in Lebanon - have less and less influence.

The 14-day-old Israeli bombardment of Lebanon does make Palestinians wonder what they can expect from Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, if he is re-elected on 29 May. Ziyad Abu Amr is worried that "Peres is more and more controlled by his generals". He says the Palestinians have now played two important cards - the containment of Hamas, the Islamic militant movement, and the amendment of the Palestinian charter - without "getting anything back from Israel".

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