Palestinian Politics of Car Bombs ; Political Parties Vying for Market Share Are Finding It Increasingly by Attacks on Israel

Article excerpt

In some ways, it was an unremarkable little car bomb.

It exploded around midnight last Saturday in downtown Jerusalem, terrifying people in the vicinity and scorching a tree. No serious injuries or deaths resulted.

But the attack was soon claimed by a blast from the past: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Once the second- ranking Palestinian faction, the PFLP gained a perverse international glamour three decades ago for hijacking airplanes.

Now it competes with a half-dozen third-tier Palestinian political parties to escape the quicksand of irrelevance. One crucial tactic is its resumption of militant action against Israel.

As US diplomats struggle to get Israelis and Palestinians to back away from conflict, the thinking of the PFLP and some other Palestinian parties suggests a grim reality: Violence against Israel has become smart politics. This trend is likely to complicate any attempt by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to calm the situation.

Despite Israel's announcement of a policy of "restraint" last week, Mr. Arafat so far has made no reciprocal gesture. In public and presumably behind the scenes, US officials have pressured him to do so, without success.

The PFLP's military wing, dormant for years, is now detonating car bombs, firing mortars at Israeli targets, and attacking Israeli settlers.

"In the face of Israeli military occupation," says Abed al-Rahim Mallouh, the head of the PFLP's political department, "resistance is not only a legitimate right, it is also a duty."

He and other PFLP members say that their political credibility depends in part on their image as a militant organization that can fight the Israelis. But the times have not always been so brutish.

During the peace process of the 1990s, says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst who heads the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, groups vying for public support didn't feel armed struggle was a political necessity. Given the air of confrontation today, he continues, violence "is useful for any faction to survive and to grow."

"For an organization that's been as marginalized as the PFLP has over the past decade," adds Mouin Rabbani, the director of the Palestinian American Research Center in Ramallah, "this is a very convenient way for them to reestablish their presence."

Nonviolence still viable

At least two small parties are opting against militant confrontation, suggesting that political viability is indeed possible without violence.

But the PFLP and the two biggest Palestinian factions - Yasser Arafat's Fatah and the Islamist party Hamas - are engaged in armed conflict, sometimes openly and sometimes anonymously. The same goes for a smaller Islamist group, Islamic Jihad.

"Fatah's resort to militant action provided a cover for other organizations to do so," says Mr. Rabbani. "It made it legitimate."

Rabbani says Fatah's resumed militancy - during the peace process it abstained from such action - is one factor, though not the determining one, in what he calls the party's "spectacular" rebound in Palestinian public opinion. …