Peace Process Realigns Power among Palestinians the Middle East Peace Process Has Led to Open Political Activity in the Israeli-Occupied Territories as Palestinians Anticipate Some Form of Self-Rule Conceded by Israel

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AS Palestinian delegates prepare for a new round of negotiations with Israel, they are finding that the peace process is fueling political and personal rivalries - and complicating the Palestinians' first steps toward open political activity.

Within only a few weeks of their launch, the peace talks are forcing changes both in the relationship between Palestinian leaders inside and outside the occupied territories, and among internal leaders themselves, as factions and individuals try to bolster their own positions.

Throughout the occupied territories, proponents and opponents of the peace process have been staging demonstrations and debates that the Israeli authorities have been hesitant to interrupt, offering an unprecedented opportunity for political organization and activity. The Israeli tolerance follows years of banning political activity in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We want to exploit the peace process to start open political activity," says Palestinian journalist Ziad Ali Abu Zayyad. "We want to create facts on the ground in front of the Israelis that are public and far from underground."

The bilateral negotiations in Washington may launch negotiations on future Palestinian self-rule. "And now that power is perceptibly within peoples' grasp, there is something worth fighting about," says a Western diplomat in Jerusalem.

At the heart of the fight are a number of "political committees," set up in the occupied territories during the Madrid conference by two prominent Palestinians, Mr. Abu Zayyad and university lecturer Sari Nusseibeh.

Made up of some 200 people associated with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's mainstream "Fatah" faction, the creation of the committees disconcerted members of the Palestinian delegation to Madrid when they returned home.

The surprise announcement of the committees also angered leaders of other PLO groups, such as the communist "People's Party" and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Abu Zayyad insists that the committees are designed to support the Palestinian negotiating team. "We decided there must be an open channel between the people and the leadership," he says. "The committees' role is to tell the delegation what the people want, and to explain to the people what is happening in the {talks}."

But he also foresees a more specific future for the committees. "The mainstream {within the PLO} needs an organized public body to function on a political level," he argues. …