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Prospect of peace talks puts focus on divisions among Palestinian factions Little room left for moderates

NABLUS, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK — NABLUS, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The struggles at al-Ittihad hospital reflect the tensions that plague the Palestinian community as it confronts the prospect of peace negotiations.

The troubles began with a squabble between supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its greatest rival, the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement. The dispute was over which of them had the right to run the hospital cafeteria, much as they dispute the control of city neighborhoods.

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A PLO activist claimed the cafeteria should be his. A Hamas man responded by taking over another hospital room and saying he would turn it into a competing restaurant.

Administrators closed the cafeteria. Then they closed everything except the emergency room and obstetrics department and sent most of the staff home. They were mindful of what had happened at another hospital, where a Hamas man finished a brawl with a wounded PLO rival by breaking into an operating room to stab him during surgery.

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Palestinian leaders, middle-aged men whose word used to go unchallenged, view the hospital problems as an ominous portent.

TC As chances for Arab-Israeli peace talks wax and wane, Palestinians must decide whether to participate. In the process, they are violently reopening debates over day-to-day tactics and long-term strategies in the uprising against Israeli rule.

There is little love lost between the factions. Hamas endorses creating an Islamic state that would include Israel as well as the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The PLO is divided among a political left, center and right, each with a program of its own for self-rule.

Hamas and PLO factions dispute whether joining Arab-Israeli talks would represent a victory or a defeat. Hamas supporters and the left-wing of the PLO oppose the talks, and call for Palestinians to boycott them.

Factions also dispute whether the Palestinians who have met with Secretary of State James A. Baker III are patriots or traitors. Within the last week, Hamas-sponsored leaflets have appeared threatening death to Palestinians attending a peace conference. Gaza, an Islamic organization made the same threat against anyone talking with Mr. Baker.

For the traditional leadership, the situation has all the makings of a disaster. Because of factionalism, Palestinians may lose whether they agree to the peace conference or stay away. If they stay away, they risk losing the chance of ever reaching their goals. For anyone who does attend, there is the risk of being targeted for attack.

Even the moderates insist that Palestinians must have assurances of getting what they want, mainly Israel's eventual withdrawal from the occupied territories. But Israel has pledged to keep those lands. Mr. Baker says their future is what in fact must be negotiated.

Palestinians insist they would attend a conference only if they were regarded as winners, not as the party generally regarded to be the one most in need of a peace agreement.

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"It's the Israelis and Americans who are on the wrong side," said Bassam al-Shakaa, a former mayor who in 1980 lost his legs to a car bomb placed by Jewish settlers. "I am on the side of the future. They are the criminals."

Such strong feelings leave little room for would-be moderates.

"The fundamentalists say this is a conspiracy and that we will sell out Palestine," said businessman Said Kanaan, a supporter of the PLO's mainstream Fatah faction. "The leftists say the United States will be the only party to benefit. That leaves only the center wanting to go to talks, but in a very weak position."

The debate is especially intense in Nablus, the unofficial capital of the uprising, or intifada, the protests that are well into their fourth year.

If East Jerusalem prides itself on sophistication, Nablus is proudest of its bellicosity. East Jerusalem is for intellectuals, Nablus for street fighters.

In the casbah are the young men challenging the traditional leaders, such as Mr. Kanaan. The men here in their early 20s demand to do things their own, often violent way.

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They are found after passing lookouts standing half-hidden in doorways, going up a half-dozen staircases and continuing through narrow passageways. A covered staircase finally leads to a rooftop that is the hide-out of two of the West Bank's wanted men, two Palestinians who betray their nervousness by chain-smoking cigarettes.

One, 21 years old, claims to have been on Israel's "wanted" list for more than a year; the other, 25, has spent several terms in prison and has been in hiding even longer. Neither goes very far in the casbah without several comrades walking ahead on guard for soldiers.

Both unabashedly advocate violence as the best way for Palestinians to end Israel's occupation and establish a Palestinian state. Beginning peace talks would not require that violence stop, they say.

"Either they find a solution for the Palestinian problem in general or we will keep hiding until God knows when," said the younger man, a high school student when the uprising began. "There will be no surrender."

"We need a continuous escalation of the intifada," said his partner. "There is escalation and there is escalation, and these things go together."

By local standards, the men grew up in the middle class, as members of families owning substantial amounts of farmland. Both men had planned to attend a university and then to take up management of the family properties, a vocation that seems increasingly unlikely.

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They have a dark view of the world. They find Arab governments guilty of repeated betrayals of the Palestinian cause, the United States guilty of unquestioned support for Israel. Any Palestinian willing to negotiate without the express endorse ment of the PLO would be guilty of betrayal, too.

The middle-aged leaders wonder whether the younger generation -- students turned self-trained military commanders, used to the danger and excitement of underground life -- would be able to adjust to the change if there were a chance for real peace.

"We are going to face a big problem with these young people in the casbah or the refugee camps," said a local prayer leader who is known for his moderate views. "We are living in a poisonous atmosphere."


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