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
"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
"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. …