The mutiny against Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in Lebanon has brought forth an outpouring of statements and some demonstrations of support for Arafat involving West Bank political and religious leaders, who apparently want to maintain the international recognition for their cause that Arafat has achieved.
These West Bank leaders have also vehemently condemned the interference of Syria and Libya in the factional fighting inside the troubled PLO.
Beneath the flurry of statements and a few scattered demonstrations in support of Arafat including one outside the Al Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, lies an acute awareness that there is little the West Bank Palestinians can do to help him in perhaps his hour of greatest need.
"We can show the extent of support for him but beyond that? Obviously we cannot invite him to come here," said Emile Sahliyeh, a professor of Middle East studies at Bir Zeit University.
The new surge of radicalism within the PLO has encouraged Israeli officials to believe that an overall weakening of the PLO's influence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip might make local leaders more willing to join in the long-stalled autonomy talks called for in the Camp David peace process.
It is not clear whether the latest attack on a Jewish settler in Hebron Thursday is a harbinger of a new radicalism in the West Bank reflecting that strain emerging within Arafat's organization. It appears to be linked more to local circumstances and mounting Arab frustrations over the push of Jewish settlers into the city center. Should Arafat fall, however, and the rebel faction prevail, a new more radical policy within Fatah could well incite West Bank Arabs to more such acts.
A recent poll of Palestinian opinion here taken by the East Jerusalem Arabic-language weekly Bayader showed that of the 777 persons here and in the Gaza Strip responding to the question "Do you support Yasser Arafat as leader of the Palestinian march?" 92 percent replied "yes."
The only hint that West Bankers take a more moderate line and back Arafat's earlier efforts to find a basis with King Hussein of Jordan for entering negotiations came in reply to the question of whether they supported the continuation of "the Jordanian-Palestinian dialogue." Nearly 72 percent said "yes."
Palestinians here concerned about preserving what remains of the only internationally recognized organization able to negotiate and speak on their behalf abroad--the PLO--voice fury over Syria's role in fragmenting the PLO and its leadership.
Perhaps the most dramatic statement issued so far from the West Bank came from the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheik Saad Iddin Alami, who on June 26 issued a religious ruling blessing anyone who attempted to assassinate Syrian President Hafez Assad.
"This Assad has murdered many Moslems, including Palestinian Moslems. The Islamic law is that such a person must be killed," said the mufti.
Such an open invitation to assassinate an Arab head of state by a Sunni religious leader of his stature is a rare event and particularly significant because of the general Sunni respect for a ruler, however bad he may be. The fact that Assad is an Alawite, a minority sect regarded as heretical by orthodox Sunnis, may have been a factor in the mufti's decision to make his unusual ruling.
The statement seems to reflect the depth of anger and frustration felt by most West Bank Palestinians at what is happening in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and particularly at Syria's role in shattering the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and unity embodied for 15 years in the figure of Arafat.
Israeli military sources and other analysts of West Bank politics say there has been no overt sign yet of any support anywhere on the West Bank for the Fatah rebel leader Said Musa or his message of exclusively military struggle.
But a number of students at this politically active university felt Arafat will now have to adopt a more militant political line and seek the outside support of the Soviet Union and radical Arab states if he is ever to counter Syria and overcome the rebellion.
"He will have to go left to keep his independence," remarked one student. "There is no going back to King Hussein."
He was referring to Arafat's negotiations earlier this year with the Jordanian monarch about the possibility of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation in new U.S.-sponsored peace talks.
Defenseless and facing the progressive Israeli takeover of their lands, West Bank Palestinians hardly need to see their position further weakened by the fragmentation of the PLO leadership. A joint statement issued by a number of West Bank organizations after a pro-Arafat demonstration at Al Aqsa mosque late last month called upon the Fatah rebels to "resolve their difference by the democratic means available in the tradition of the Palestinian movement."
This was a reference to the Palestinian practice of hashing out their quarrels over what political and military line to follow within the various congresses and assemblies provided for within both Arafat's Fatah group and the umbrella PLO.
In recent days, various West Bank communities and organizations, mayors and religious leaders, unions and youth groups, have been issuing a torrent of statements backing Arafat as "the sole legitimate leader" of the PLO.
The "national institutions of Nablus," comprising virtually every organized body in the town, from trade unions to cooperative societies, condemned Syria's role in bolstering the Fatah rebels, a process it said was aimed at creating "an alternative leadership" under Syrian control.
This fear of the Palestinians losing their independence to Syria is another common theme in the statements and comments of West Bank Palestinians.
For example, one student interviewed here, who identified himself only as Osama, made it clear he felt Arafat had strayed too far from the PLO political platform and should not have flirted with President Reagan's peace initiative as he did in holding talks with Hussein. Yet even he, a procommunist, was against the rebellion because it was allowing Syria to dominate the PLO.
"The main thing is to keep our unity and our independence from Syria," he said.
It appears, however, that it is precisely this independence that is fast disappearing now in the Bekaa Valley and with it possibly the last chance for a negotiated settlement to prevent the West Bank from being fully absorbed into Israel. Once again, Palestinians here seem destined to be bystanders--able only to issue statements in protest--as their fate, and this time also that of their own leadership, is decided by forces far beyond their control.