The PLO official assassinated in Tunisia on Saturday was a steely fighter who could order the Munich Olympics massacre and beg visitors to bring him scoops of dirt from his Palestinian hometown.

Khalil Al Wazir, 52, was the PLO's No. 2 man behind Chairman Yasser Arafat. He was its military chief and chief of operations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But more than that, said knowledgeable Palestinian and Israeli officials, the man known as Abu Jihad was a political chameleon like Arafat, perhaps the only PLO official who could have succeeded the chairman as the leader of the fractious umbrella organization.

Al Wazir masterminded the March 7 infiltration from Egypt of three gunmen who hijacked a city bus in southern Israel and killed three civilians before they were killed, Israeli officials said.

Yet he argued at PLO councils that Palestinians in the occupied territories _ now in the fourth month of a bloody uprising _ should stick to throwing rocks and avoid using guns if they want to retain their propaganda edge over the Israeli army, Palestinian officials said.

The most modest of the PLO's leaders, Al Wazir seemed to relish the role of family man. During an interview with a reporter in Jordan in early 1986, he introduced his wife and a daughter, an unusual move for a guerrilla fighter.

When the reporter explained that he had come from Israel, Al Wazir asked if on the next trip, the reporter could bring him a handful of dirt from Al Wazir's hometown of Ramleh, in what is now Israel.

Al Wazir was born on Oct. 10, 1935. He was 13 years old when the 1948 Arab-Israeli War erupted and his family fled from Ramleh to Gaza. He attended Cairo University and later Stuttgart University in West Germany, where he met a young engineering student named Yasser Arafat.

In 1958, Arafat, Al Wazir and five others founded Fatah, now the largest and most influential faction within the PLO. Wazir became the first editor of its first magazine, Filistinuna.

But from 1964 onward he was almost exclusively engaged in military operations. He founded and commanded Fatah's military wing, Assifah, and became deputy commander of the PLO's military forces in 1973.

"He was a strictly military man. His politics were almost nonexistent because his politics were those of Arafat. Whatever Arafat said he went along with," said Tamar Porat, a PLO expert formerly with Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Al Wazir personally briefed the Palestinian gunmen who later massacred 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, according to the book Israel's Lebanon War by Yaari and Zeev Schiff, Israel's foremost defense analyst.

Other Israeli sources say he masterminded the 1975 attack on a Tel Aviv hotel that killed 11 hostages, and the 1978 attack on a city bus that killed more than 35 hostages.

And while he used to bristle when asked about PLO terrorism, he occasionally went public with his advocacy of attacking all Israeli targets, even those abroad.