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)

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... with this review
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
i100
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam