- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria — Their offices are closed, their mobile phones are off and they are hard to find in Damascus.

Yet the Palestinian militants harbored by Syria continue to cast a shadow over relations with America and heighten tension with Israel.

Since Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked President Bashar Assad in May to close the offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine and other groups branded by Washington as terrorists, the militants have gone underground.

They have put a stop to rallies and fiery speeches to fellow Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk, a low-income area five miles south of Damascus where about 150,000 Palestinian refugees live. But they are still around, often traveling to neighboring Lebanon, where Damascus wields influence, to give statements or interviews to the Arab news media.

Maher Taher, the top leader in Damascus of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine, said Saturday by telephone from Lebanon that the Palestinians are trying to prevent further pressure on Syria by lying low.

“We shouldn’t give Israel and America pretexts on the issue of Syria,” he said.

One Western diplomat in Damascus described the changes in the Palestinian presence in Syria as cosmetic. The groups remain operational in Damascus, he said, and the United States wants the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders expelled, not sent to Lebanon.

Israel staged an air strike near Damascus on Oct. 5 after an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing at a restaurant in the Israeli city of Haifa killed 19 persons.

Israel said the target was a training camp being used by Palestinian militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It said the base was under Syrian supervision and funded by Iran. Syria and Islamic Jihad said the base had been abandoned long ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would not hesitate to strike again in Syria. And Damascus, which responded to the Oct. 5 strike with only a complaint to the United Nations, says it might do more next time, raising fears of a major conflagration in the Middle East.

Leaders like Khaled Mashaal and Mousa Abu Marzouk of Hamas and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah of Islamic Jihad have had homes and offices in Damascus. Some have been here since leaving Lebanon when Israel invaded in 1982, and others have come more recently.

Today, Palestinian leaders are still believed to be living in the Damascus area along with their families, but they are hard to track down.

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