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PLO radicals bend towards pragmatism: Secular Palestinian 'rejectionists' in the occupied territories are slowly coming round to the idea of compromise, writes Sarah Helm in Bethlehem

WALID is a 27-year-old Palestinian Marxist, just released after six years in jail for the attempted murder of an Israeli security officer. He lives in Dheisheh refugee camp, a centre of left-wing militancy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

An activist of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a militant faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Walid has had little experience of Israeli authority other than arrest, detention and curfews. Recently, however, he and other secular Palestinian faction leaders have been pampered and cajoled by the Israeli military authorities.

'They asked us round for coffee. They offered to help us find jobs and to support our camp committee. I said I have been in jail. Why now are you offering us this? I laughed at them. The officer replied that the policy now is not to imprison us but to meet us and offer us support,' Walid said.

His experience suggests that Israeli attempts to influence Palestinian politics have come full circle. Not so long ago it was the Islamic groups, primarily the Islamic Resistance Movement, which were encouraged as a counter to the radical PLO factions. Now, as the deportation of more than 400 Islamic militants in December showed, Hamas is Israel's main enemy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In addition to the deportation, Israeli efforts are under way to build up the secular factions - even the most militant 'rejectionist' groups like the PFLP, whose leaders oppose the peace talks as a sellout. 'It is clear they want us to damage Hamas,' says Walid.

The secular Palestinian factions suspect such overtures as cynical manipulation. Nevertheless, for all the public claims of new PLO-Hamas unity since the deportations, on the streets many secular leaders do, like the Israelis, fear the influence of Hamas. In Dheisheh they are building their own response.

Standing on the main road through Bethlehem, behind tall wire fences, this camp has always been a very public symbol of Palestinian defiance. Twelve from the camp were killed in the intifada and hundreds jailed.

Historically, the camp has nurtured the intellectual leadership of the militant left. It has prided itself on political unity which other camps lost, shunning compromise political solutions and holding out for the full right of refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel proper.

The deeply-rooted Communist ideology of Dheisheh resisted the influence of Islamic militancy. Many of the refugees who fled to the camp after the 1948 war, which led to the creation of Israel, came from villages in the south between Hebron and Beersheba where there was already a strong Communist tradition and a high level of education.

'In Dheisheh people prayed, but they were not religious. My uncle was a Communist and imam (prayer leader) of the mosque in his village, where he read the Communist Party news in the mosque,' recalled Mohammed, a Dheisheh Communist.

In the late 1960s, loyalties switched to the new PLO factions, but the Marxist ideology remained strong. 'We believed Marxism was good for Arab society. It was a religion for us; we thought it could solve our problems,' said Walid.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union disillusion spread in the camp, further deepened by the sense of betrayal during the Gulf war. Although Hamas found it hard to get a foothold in Dheisheh, more people now go to the mosques here than ever before. Two new mosques are under construction. The secular leaders say the older youths in the camp hardly know or understand the Koran, but their children are being taught it.

The spread of Hamas in other parts of the occupied territories focused the minds of Dheisheh's political leaders, who are now trying to plug a political vacuum by building up their institutions. The Islamic groups, associated with Hamas, already run a kindergarten. Now the PFLP is raising money for a library. Fatah, the mainstream PLO faction, is building a maternity home and has a centre for the handicapped.

While the mosque spreads its money to the poor, a PLO youth committee, closed down during the intifada when its leaders were deported, is being re-started. The secular factions insist there is no enmity with the Islamic leaders here, but their real feelings are only thinly disguised. Fatah, the more religious of the PLO factions has, in particular, lost supporters to Hamas.

'Hamas says Islam is the solution but they have no programme. If they win power it will be a dictatorship. But in the long term they will lose. They have nothing to give people, they have no ideas. What people really need is an economic base. We have to show we are stronger by building a future here in the camp, especially for young people,' said Mohammed.

A PFLP activist said: 'Our women have had eggs thrown at them by these people for wearing jeans. We value our freedom. I am a Palestinian, I am a Marxist. But I want freedom - I do not want the fundamentalists.'

Activists such as Walid are no longer talking about fighting, and admit that talk of returning to there homes is just 'a dream'. Nor are they spouting ideology. He now sees his earlier militancy as part of his misspent youth, and talks not of violence but of raising money for the camp's roads. New Israeli patronage may not be welcomed by the secular activists in Dheisheh, but for them this strange new alliance is not all bad. Israel allowed PFLP elections in the camp for the first time last month, a chance they seized to build up their support.

Largely out of fear of Hamas, but also because of disillusion with past ways, a new era of pragmatism is breaking out in Dheisheh. It may signal that the secular Palestinian 'rejectionists' are being forced to accept the idea of compromise and peace.

(Photograph omitted)