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ABC Mini-Encyclopedia


Arafat Always Goes Too Far

From: The Wall Street Journal - Europe - Tuesday, July 10

In the '70s, the PLO ran riot in Jordan and Lebanon.


The crackdown was swift and brutal. Though the government was deeply divided between hard-liners and those favoring more negotiation with the Palestinians, the hard-liners won. Towns and refugee camps that had raised the flag of the Republic of Palestine were shelled, while Yasser Arafat proclaimed a "genocide" and urged his people to resist. There were numerous casualties on both sides. The Arab League called for a cease-fire, and then for a meeting of its heads of state. But Mr. Arafat rejected their proposals. At a meeting with the government shortly thereafter, he accused his opponents of being imperialists in league with the U.S.

If this sounds familiar, it should--except that the start of this conflict was September 1970, not September 2000; it happened in Jordan, not Israel and the West Bank; and Mr. Arafat's nemesis was King Hussein, not Ehud Barak or Ariel Sharon.

In 1970, Palestinians, both citizens and refugees, were almost as numerous in Jordan as King Hussein's own Bedouins. Mr. Arafat used the estimated 20,000 Palestine Liberation Organization fighters in Jordan to exercise control over much of the Palestinian population. In many parts of the country, he was the de facto government. The king had grown increasingly worried that Mr. Arafat posed a threat to his regime, and cross-border attacks into Israel and other acts of PLO terror had put intolerable strains on his relations with the West.

The last straw came on Sept. 6, when the PLO hijacked four civilian airliners, flying three to Dawson's Field in PLO-controlled northern Jordan and one to Cairo. After European governments secured the release of the hostages by agreeing to release PLO terrorists from their prisons, the PLO blew up the planes.

The Jordanian response, from which one of the PLO's most notorious brigades was to take its name, became known as Black September. An estimated 2,000 PLO fighters and several thousand more Palestinian civilians were killed. Mr. Arafat fled to Cairo, where an angry meeting with King Hussein nonetheless led to a cease-fire. But Mr. Arafat soon returned to join the rump of his forces, which had retreated to northern Jordan, close to their Syrian sponsors. Within 10 months they were driven out of the country.

As the world waits to see whether the current, fragile cease-fire will put an end to nine months of low-level warfare between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the past may prove instructive. For, in essence, we've been here before. And regardless of what one thinks of Mr. Arafat from a moral standpoint--is he simply a terrorist, or does he come, as he famously told the United Nations in 1974, "bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun"?--his history, wherever he has gained a territorial foothold, has not been that of a reliable or even rational partner, even with potential Arab allies. His history is one of pushing too far. Is the Jordan example not convincing? Well, a replay wasn't too long in coming. Within months of their expulsion from Jordan, Mr. Arafat and the PLO were setting up shop in Lebanon and tearing at the fabric of that country too. Lebanese Christians, particularly, resented suffering the Israeli retaliations that the PLO's cross-border raids provoked. In April 1974, for example, the PLO killed 18 at Kiryat Shimona and 20, mostly schoolgirls, at Maalot, both in northern Israel.

The early '70s were also boom years for PLO terrorism on the international stage. The year 1972 alone saw PLO groups blow up a West German electricity plant, a Dutch gas plant and an oil refinery in Trieste, Italy; kill, in conjunction with the Japanese Red Army, 24 at Israel's Lod airport; and massacre 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. In early 1973, Black September took the American ambassador and his deputy (along with one Belgian diplomat) hostage in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, and, after President Nixon refused to negotiate, murdered them.

Flush with money from his Arab and Soviet sponsors, as well as an income tax levied by the Gulf states on Palestinian workers, Mr. Arafat quickly built up a state--called the Fakhani Republic after the Beirut neighborhood in which he operated--in much of Lebanon. By 1975, he had some 15,000 troops under his command, with many more associated paramilitaries, and was acquiring tanks and anti-aircraft guns.

PLO-affiliated conglomerates, including one controlled by Ahmed Qurei, who would later negotiate the Oslo Accords, monopolized everything from shoes to baby food. Billions of dollars flowed through the PLO, the only thorough record of which seemed to be a small notebook Mr. Arafat carried on his person. His underlings levied arbitrary taxes on the Lebanese, and practiced other forms of extortion, car theft and racketeering.

That year--1975--Christian rage boiled over, and Lebanon's long civil war began. By early 1976, the PLO and its allies controlled most of the country. But that summer Palestinian assassins murdered the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, and the U.S., Israel and the Arab states tacitly supported a Syrian-led invasion of the country, which reversed many PLO gains. An October cease-fire stabilized the situation. But 40,000 had been killed. And in subsequent years, PLO attacks into Israel continued, provoking more Israeli retaliation.

The endgame began in June 1982, when renewed PLO attacks on Israel coincided with an assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador in London. Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to send Israel's armed forces into Lebanon to drive out the PLO. Mr. Arafat's appeals to the Arab League and the U.N. went unheeded, while ordinary Lebanese took to crying "Enough!" whenever they spotted him. In August President Reagan convinced Israel to stop the fighting, but Mr. Arafat, whose forces had been routed, had already told the Lebanese government he would leave the country. On Aug. 30, he left for Tunis, while his forces dispersed to other Arab countries. The Lebanese would suffer eight more years of the civil war he provoked.

The extent of Mr. Arafat's personal involvement in the numerous terrorist acts that have left an indelible stain on the Palestinian cause has long been a matter of debate among knowledgeable observers. But there is no question that, if not outright front groups for Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction, the groups that claimed responsibility were most often fully paid up members of the PLO, and that Chairman Arafat did nothing to stop them. Persistent rumors that the U.S. and Israel possess tapes of Mr. Arafat directing the 1973 Khartoum murders (confirmed to me by Ariel Sharon late last year) have gained further credence with the recent allegations of James J. Welsh, a former Navy and National Security Agency intelligence analyst. He says the NSA sent out a warning of a possible PLO attack, based on shortwave intercepts, that was inexplicably downgraded by the State Department. After the murders, it was covered up. His story deserves congressional attention. After all, there is no statute of limitations on murder.

But the more pressing question is what the future holds for the little war now going on in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Mr. Arafat's history in Jordan and Lebanon suggests this is headed for no good end. From internal corruption and abuse of power, to the repeated breach of agreements, to the apparent use of territory as a base for terrorism, the situation of today's Palestinian Authority is strikingly similar to those two prior episodes.

Perhaps such observations played a part in convincing former U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, who spent a decade trying to convince the word otherwise, to conclude this year that Mr. Arafat "is not capable of negotiating an end to the conflict." And if Prime Minister Sharon soon feels compelled to act decisively against Mr. Arafat, as he did in 1982, and as King Hussein did in 1970, it would behoove the world to think carefully about where blame for the continuing Palestinian tragedy really lies.

Mr. Pollock is an assistant features editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

See also Arafat's relations to Christianity

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