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Analysis: Mideast history repeats itself

By CLAUDE SALHANI   |   Aug. 20, 2002 at 10:51 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 (UPI) -- When President George Bush, the father of the incumbent president, put together an international coalition of forces that included most of the Arab world in order to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait some 11 years ago, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership made a gross miscalculation -- they sided with the losing side, Iraq.

One would think that the Palestinians would have learned from their blunders. But now, those same Palestinians are committing the same errors.

During the buildup of Operation Desert Shield, the precursor to Desert Storm, when coalition troops gathered in the Saudi Arabian desert under the direction of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf to prepare for the eventual thrust north into Kuwait that would oust the Iraqis invaders, Bush succeeded in convincing leaders of dozens of nations to contribute troops. Those included soldiers from Arab countries such as Qatar, Egypt and Syria -- a paramount political contribution to the war effort. In short, what Egypt's and Syria's involvement in the war accomplished was to crystallize most of the Arab camp into a single anti-Saddam bloc. It was a delicate ballet in international diplomacy -- not an easy feat by any means -- but it kept the fragile and complicated coalition together, and it got the job done.

On the other hand, Arafat and the Palestinian leadership could have accrued some badly needed points and gained sympathetic ears in Washington had they joined the anti-Saddam alliance. As it was, Arafat, once again, made the wrong call.

Besides Arafat's open support for Iraq's invasion of the oil-rich emirate, some units of Abu Abbas' Palestine Liberation Front went as far as assisting Iraqi troops in their occupation of Kuwait City. In the few months between the invasion of the oil-rich emirate that Hussein claimed as his 19th province and the liberation of Kuwait by U.S.-led allied troops, and while Bush was consolidating his international alliance, the PLO leader made several visits to the Iraqi capital.

This gross miscalculation carried a two-sided negative effect for the Palestinians. First, it placed Arafat not only on the losing side in a major regional conflict, but it put him on the side of a brutal and evil dictator who openly attacked a neighboring country when most of the world opposed Iraq's actions. It cost the Palestinian leader years in public relations efforts, further alienating him from the United States. It gave Arafat's detractors more fuel to use against him. Arafat could not have made a worse call.

Second, and probably with far greater consequences for the significantly large Palestinian Diaspora living in Kuwait, was the backlash suffered from Kuwaitis after they reclaimed their ravaged country.

Blaming long-time Palestinian residents for support shown toward Hussein, thousands bore the brunt of Kuwait's revenge. Thousands more, among them many who had lived in Kuwait for generations, were haphazardly rounded up and deported. Others disappeared overnight, never to be seen or heard from again. Freshly dug graves suddenly appeared in cemeteries in and around Kuwait City. Elderly Palestinians wandered from one hospital to the next, and one cemetery to another, in the hope of finding traces of a loved one, often without result.

This was the price that many Palestinians paid for Arafat's failed policy.

Those not-too-distant memories alone should serve as a rude awakening for Arafat and the Palestinian leadership. Yet recent reports indicate they are now making the same mistakes all over again.

In pro-Iraqi demonstrations in Gaza last week, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets in a demonstration organized by Fatah, Arafat's mainline organization. The slogans were naturally anti-U.S. and anti-Israel. Some even urged the Iraqi leader to attack Tel Aviv, as he did during the last Gulf War, when he fired several Scud missiles at Israeli cities.

These protests occurred just as Israeli and Palestinian negotiator were meeting to discuss the first step in a renewed effort by Israeli's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet and the Palestinian Authority to reach an agreement in the current Middle East impasse, and find an end to the violence that continues to rip through the Holy Land.

Hussein has long been a firm supporter of the Palestinians and opposed to any peaceful solution in the ongoing Mideast conflict. He continues to offer $25,000 to families of suicide bombers and $10,000 to families of any Palestinian killed in the intifada.

At this highly crucial time for the Palestinians, Arafat badly needs as many friends as he can round up in Washington. As the Bush administration is believed to be gearing up for another stab at Saddam Hussein -- this time to get rid of him -- Palestinian support for the Iraqi strongman will only serve to harm the Palestinians, and further weaken their position vis-à-vis Washington.

Arafat should learn from history and seek better counsel.

That is not to say that Bush should go to war in the first place, as no one else in the Arab world, or in Europe for that matter, sees much logic in this potential new and dangerous conflict.


(Comments may be sent to claude@upi.com)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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