The PLO in Kuwait

Wednesday, May 8, 1991 - 10:00

By Shafeeq Ghabra

During the early period of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the Palestinian community there was divided. Most were convinced from the outset that the invasion was a disaster. The Palestinian community in Kuwait was the richest of the diaspora and included high government officials, bankers, administrators, entrepreneurs, engineers, teachers and doctors.

But another segment could not believe that Iraq had ill intentions, and with its pan-Arab ideology, must be working for the good of the Arab nation.

Some also believed that any change in the status quo in the Middle East had to be good. These feelings were enhanced by the fact that Palestinians received better treatment than Kuwaitis at checkpoints during the early weeks.

But Palestinian-Kuwaiti ties were damaged by the PLO's actions at the beginning of the crisis, including Arafat's meeting with Saddam two days after the invasion and the PLO's vote against the August 10 Arab summit resolutions. And while PLO leaders such as Khalid and Hani al-Hasan and Jawid al-Ghusayn condemned the invasion, a stream of others, including Faruq Qaddumi, Yasir Abed Rabbu and Muhammad Abbas, appeared on Iraqi television (seen by everyone in Kuwait) expressing solidarity with Iraq.

There was no mention of human rights violations, and indeed the question of invasion of Kuwait was only raised in connection with proposals linking it to other unsolved issues in the region.

After the August 10 Cairo summit, Fatah activists in Kuwait took an independent stand, distributing leaflets on four occasions strongly criticising the occupation and the behaviour of the Iraqis. It was this that spurred the Iraqi administration to send some 200-400 members of the Iraqi-sponsored Palestinian organisation, the Arab Liberation Front to Kuwait to intimidate and control the Palestinian community and the local PLO.

ALF members, mainly from Iraq, were assigned to checkpoints and police stations. Strong protests were made to the PLO headquarters in Tunis, and as a result the ALF was withdrawn from the checkpoints, but it continued to intimidate Palestinians and Kuwaitis.

However, as the occupation continued, the role of the ALF was strengthened, and it was joined by 400 members of Muhammad Abbas' Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF). In addition, the Iraqi-controlled Palestinian Liberation Army sent in some 400 soldiers. It thus became apparent that Iraq was determined to impose on the Palestinian community an anti-Kuwaiti and pro-Iraqi stand. These developments added to the rising tensions between Kuwaitis and Palestinians.

Furthermore, during January all the PLO organisations met in Baghdad and decided to encourage Kuwaiti Palestinian organisations to join the Iraqi "popular army" in Kuwait. Several hundred individuals from the community were issued weapons and identity cards stating that they were members of the "popular army".

This group, made up mostly of poor individuals, joined up in order to be allowed to move freely about the country to avoid queuing for bread and gas. They were paid 105 dinars a month. But the leadership of Fatah in Kuwait and many of its members refused to obey the instructions from the organisation in Baghdad. As a result, the Fatah leader in Kuwait, Rafiq Qiblawi, was assassinated on 18 January.

An issue that exacerbated tension between Kuwaitis and Palestinians was the work boycott. Of the Palestinians who remained in Kuwait, at least 70% observed the boycott, including all those involved in the private sector. But for poorer Palestinians, the fear of losing their savings and pensions was great, especially since many had to make up the loss of income from family members employed in the private sector.

They were also vulnerable to the threat of deportation. Thus many government employees signed in at their work places in September, although few did any significant work. Some destroyed documents and sabotaged computers to prevent the Iraqis from using them.

But despite the tensions there was considerable cooperation between Kuwaitis and Palestinians. In mixed residential quarters, neighbours helped each other, sharing food and other necessities. Some local PLO activists made secret contacts with the Kuwaiti resistance and helped Kuwaiti volunteers to move food secretly from warehouses to Kuwaiti cooperatives.

Ali al-Hasan, a leading light in the Palestinian community (he is a brother of Khalid and Hani al-Hasan in Tunis), was a key link to the Kuwaiti Islamic movement and played a pivotal role in providing relief to many Palestinian families during the occupation.

His attempts to mend bridges between Palestinians and Kuwaitis met with Iraqi interference. Fifteen of his young Palestinian supporters, who helped provide food and support to Kuwaitis, were arrested in September on charges of being members of the resistance; almost all of them were executed after a month in jail. Ali al-Hasan himself was interrogated three times about his help to the resistance.

Palestinians helped keep the electricity and water systems running and, with their Kuwaiti colleagues, to maintain essential medical services. They also worked as volunteers alongside Kuwaitis in bakeries and other services. Dozens of Palestinians took part in the Kuwaiti resistance, which continued throughout the occupation period, albeit since October at a lower intensity. They were involved in hiding weapons and explosives and transporting them to the resistance.

When the militants who carried out one of the most successful operations in October, damaging an Iraqi airliner carrying many servicemen and the leader of the National Guard, as it left the airport, were arrested, they turned out to be from a mixed Kuwaiti-Palestinian cell. Many of the resistance rings rounded up since October had both Kuwaiti and Palestinian members.

As a result, the Iraqi education ministry fired 3000 Palestinian tter part of September, and the dismissals of Palestinians from other sectors continued throughout October. The Iraqis also put pressure on the PLO office in Kuwait, which had refused to organise any Palestinian demonstrations or rallies in support of Iraq. (The only Palestinian demonstration, three days after the invasion, was pro-Kuwait, with inhabitants of the Hawalli quarter waving photos of the emir.)

During October the Iraqi authorities asked the PLO representative in Kuwait to leave the country. On several occasions between September and December the military governor of Kuwait, Ali Hasan al-Majid, summoned PLO representatives in Kuwait and accused them of being followers of the Sabah family.

But in September and October, large numbers of Palestinians began to leave. In addition to the fear of arrest, and their mistreatment at roadblocks by Iraqis, food shortages were becoming serious and medical care difficult. Kuwaitis and Palestinians alike were penniless. They were forced to sell their cars and electrical appliances at improvised markets to anyone who had cash, even to Iraqi civilians coming from Iraq to buy on the cheap. Thus by December Kuwait's Palestinian population had dwindled from a pre-invasion strength of 350,000 to approximately 150,000.

The liberation of Kuwait brought immediate fears of vengeance. Many Kuwaitis in exile believed that most of the Palestinians who stayed in Kuwait had cooperated with the Iraqis and reflected the PLO's policy. To Kuwaitis, the ALF and PLF men represented the Palestinian dimension of their oppression by the Iraqis.

In such an atmosphere, and despite the fact that the majority of Palestinians are innocent civilians who were also terrorised by the Iraqi occupation, mutual distrust flourishes. This is exactly what makes the current situation difficult and complex. While many Kuwaitis under occupation had positive experiences of Palestinians, others did not.

During the first days of liberation there were cases of Palestinians being victimised and arrested by armed groups and the Kuwaiti army after it arrived. At checkpoints Palestinians were singled out, vilified and sometimes beaten or arrested. The Middle East Watch report of March 21 states that since the liberation 30-40 people have been executed, often after torture, of whom several were Palestinians.

On the other hand, members of the Kuwait resistance tried to explain to the incoming army that the majority of Palestinians in Kuwait were neither collaborators nor pro-Iraqi. Some even saved Palestinians being beaten at checkpoints. Ali al-Hasan, whose house was set on fire after he survived an attempt on his life, has now been provided with Kuwaiti guards around the clock.

Slowly a situation of uncertain normality is evolving between Palestinians and Kuwaitis. Palestinians, having responded to a call by the government, are again working in electricity, water, telephone and medical installations. Palestinian employees of the Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of Information have been asked to return. A director of the National Bank of Kuwait has assured all Palestinian employees they will be called back to work soon. Relations at the work sites are reported normal; the amount of work to be done is

Yet tensions and fears continue. Several armed Kuwaiti groups, acting on their own, appear to be still operating in the city, arresting individuals and dealing out their own form of justice. The prime minister has given strict orders to the army to behave well, and has threatened to hang those who commit acts of vengeance.

While Kuwait is coming to grips with the devastation left by the Iraqis, the rebuilding of the country is a complex process that will be far more difficult than its liberation. In this context, it is unclear what the future of the Palestinian community is. Much will depend on the path Kuwait chooses concerning democracy and human rights.
[Reprinted from Middle East International. Dr Shafeeq Ghabra, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, is author of Palestinians in Kuwait. He is a Kuwaiti citizen of Palestinian origin. He escaped from occupied Kuwait towards the end of October and is currently a visiting professor at William and Mary College in Virginia. He returned briefly to Kuwait on March 13.]

From GLW issue 11