Caught In A Cross-Fire

Fate put Yasir Arafat at a funeral when the war started. As Desert Storm thundered over Baghdad, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization was far away in Tunis, laying to rest a murdered comrade. Before a PLO bodyguard killed him, Salah Khalaf had warned that all Palestinians "are really in the cross-fire." He appreciated Saddam Hussein's efforts to dedicate the war to the Palestinian cause, Khalaf told a French newspaper. "But at the same time, I don't want my own cause to be associated with the destruction of the Arab region." The PLO could only watch Khalaf's worst fears take shape. As in the past, chaos and conflict threatened to leave the Palestinians helpless and alone.

Arafat, after his disclaimers and double-talk aside, has bound the fate of the Palestinians to Saddam Hussein. In the sprawling refugee camps of the Middle East, among the embattled youths of the "intifada," Saddam stands tall as the one leader in the Arab world with the guts and the guns to challenge Israel. "Everyone has closed the door to us," said a doctor in Gaza. "There's just one light coming through, and it's coming from Saddam Hussein. Can you blame us for wanting to follow that light to the end?"

The Iraq war left Palestinians torn between humiliation and rage, alternately filled with wild hopes and numbed by fear. "Do you have shelters in Jerusalem?" a 19-year-old boy on the West Bank asked when the shooting started. "We don't have shelters or gas masks. If there's an attack, we'll die in flocks. If we make any problems, [Israeli soldiers] will flatten the whole area." News of Saddam's missile attacks on Israel brought a fatalistic elation. "For the first time in Arab history we have a man who does what he says he's going to do," said a young Palestinian in Amman. "With these flimsy rockets he put the whole of Israel in the bunker." There were even faint hopes that Saddam's strikes against Tel Aviv might somehow balance the scales of pride enough to allow a settlement. "Of course lots of people are getting killed," said economist Riad Khouri in Amman. "But what this amounts to is a diplomatic seesaw. What one hopes is that they can reach the same level and jump off and reach a solution."

Such hopes were slim, at best. Many Palestinians expect the war to produce only regional apocalypse. They envision the fall of regimes in Syria, the gulf, Egypt, even Algeria. Jordan could become first a battlefield, then a dumping ground for Israel's Palestinians--perhaps, by Palestinian lights, a second-rate substitute homeland. At the very least, defeat for Saddam will mean a new surge of Islamic fundamentalism. "In every setback, our religious conviction has been strengthened," said a 64-year-old Nablus man who has lived with war and defeat since 1948. Assurances from America and Europe--that the Palestinian issue will rank high on the agenda after the war--came across as more empty words. "One of the worst effects of this war will be the emergence of Israel as an undeterrable force," said a senior Palestinian official in Jordan's government.

A Western strategist might argue that after defeating Saddam, who was Israel's most powerful enemy, Washington will be in position to propel the Israelis to negotiate a durable peace. But all the Palestinians can see is U.S. power crushing their would-be savior. Israel itself remains flatly opposed to the idea of an international conference on the Palestinian question. "There would be no new ideas brought up," former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said last week. And Washington historically has failed to bring the unwilling Israelis to the table. "The Americans and the Israelis don't want the Arab people to lift up their head," said Khalaf Mahmoud, a dental technician in Amman. "If they do, they cut it off."

The Palestinians fear that Israel's strategy is to force each of its neighbors to make a separate peace. With Egypt it succeeded in 1979. After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, only Syrian-backed terrorism stopped Israel from garnering a Lebanese treaty. Saboteurs killed the Lebanese president who was to sign it, and suicide bombers helped drive out the U.S. Marines who defended it. Jordan and Syria have held out for an international conference that includes all the parties to the conflict. In any other framework they would be too weak to deal with the Israelis on equal terms. Jordan also came to depend on Iraq for military and financial backup in the region's delicate, complex balance of power. Should Iraq be destroyed, a senior Jordanian official said late last year, Jordan could be left with no choice but to sign a separate treaty with Israel. The Palestinians, unrecognized by Israel as a people with national rights, and with no land of their own, fear they will be left out of the picture altogether.

The Europeans have been well intentioned toward the Palestinians, but ineffectual. The gulf Arabs have paid lip service to the Palestinian cause since the invasion of Kuwait, but they have expelled Palestinian workers and cut off donations to PLO coffers. Many Kuwaitis and Saudis are frankly vindictive. Arafat put all his eggs in Saddam's basket, says one Kuwaiti financier, "and his eggs are going to get scrambled."

If Palestinian terrorist groups lash out in defense of Iraq, the war's aftermath could be that much worse for the PLO. Arafat spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif said last week the organization would "condemn any act against America and the European countries." But Abul Abbas, a PLO executive committee member in Baghdad, nonetheless called for attacks on Western interests worldwide.

As these conflicting pressures mount, the murder of Salah Khalaf (known as Abu Iyad) may have reflected the bitter schisms that already exist among Palestinian leaders. The PLO officially blamed the killing on Israeli intelligence. Khalaf, Arafat's second in command, and a close friend since the 1950s, was the patron of the group that carried out the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes. Many of the operatives from that incident have already been killed by Israeli hit teams. Commentators in Israel have suggested the secret services of Syria, Saudi Arabia or Egypt may have been involved in the Khalaf murder, as a warning not to plot actions against them. The killing might even have been linked to a crime of passion, given Khalaf's reputation as a womanizer. But the most obvious suspect was the infamous PLO renegade Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal). Khalaf's killer had served Abu Nidal for years before "repenting" and returning to Arafat's organization.

If the killer was Abu Nidal's mole, then Saddam himself could be implicated. Khalaf, along with Hamid and another aide--both also murdered--may have been dissenting voices who knew too much about the secret workings of Iraq and its allies and had too many contacts with Western intelligence agencies for Saddam's taste. Iraq's intelligence services gave Abu Nidal his start, a PLO official observes: "Don't forget that. We never forget it."

Can the PLO chairman weather such turmoil? He has before. "Arafat is a master of survival," says Rabin. Over the years, assassins' bullets and Arafat's own political savvy have made him an indelible symbol of the Palestinian cause. Despite Arafat's mistakes, perhaps even despite his support of Saddam, he could yet retain his position. Demoralized and divided, the Palestinians may find no other choice. They are left isolated and vulnerable, as so often before, hoping and praying they can ride out this Desert Storm and find a new light to follow.

Once Iraq is defeated, would you support or oppose a comprehensive Mideast peace conference that would take up the issue of Israel and the Palestinians? 80% Support 9% Oppose

From the "Newsweek" Poll of Jan. 17-18, 1991.