Different Logic, Different Rules

January 16, 1991|By KEN HAMBLIN

DENVER. — Denver These last days as I watched the last efforts at negotiation, I thought about a conversation I had with a Palestinian refugee when I visited Israel in 1986.

Invited to Israel to tour the country, I wanted to visit the trouble spots we've all seen on television. One day in Tel Aviv, I met a reporter from Israeli State Radio. He offered to take me off the scheduled tour to visit a Palestinian camp, and I jumped at the chance. After stopping at his apartment to pick up a 9mm pistol, we were off.

At the camp he introduced me to the Palestinian mayor who invited us into his sparse quarters where tea was served -- an Arab custom that precedes all political discussions and bargaining. Realizing I was an American, the Palestinian began to talk about the struggle of his people and the humiliation of being thrown out of Palestine.

Eventually the conversation came to the unavoidable Jihad, the holy war. Last weekend, almost five years later, I remembered that conversation and how -- like Saddam Hussein today -- the Palestinian seemed indifferent to odds the world powers had stacked against him.

I said his Jihad was suicide and suggested a better gambit was to learn to fight Israel by the rules set by the powerful. ''Send your son to the university and teach him to fight with a pen. It's the only realistic way to re-establish your Palestinian state.''

He remained indifferent to my suggestion and said his son, and his son's sons, would take up the Jihad against Israel. When I argued that his son would be lost if he intended to fight technology from the back of a camel, he remained unmoved.

Now I realize that like Mr. Hussein -- right or wrong -- the Palestinian was arguing the politics of the underdog, the powerless, which to us seem fatalistic. As a powerful American, I had learned to consider and play the odds.

I questioned whether he would forfeit all the young men to death against Israel or America and was amazed when he didn't answer. I pointed to a boy across the room and demanded to know who he was. The Palestinian said he was his son. I suggested it might be kinder to shoot him now, instead of waiting for Israel to do it tomorrow.

With those words, a tension filled the room and my Israeli escort became uncomfortable. When it looked as if two passionate men had argued themselves into a tight political corner, the door opened and an Arab woman came with an offer of fresh tea.

Composed again, we continued the conversation most of the afternoon. My Palestinian host was determined to make me see the plight of his people -- feeling he might connect with me especially since I am black. I remained equally determined that his people comprehend the need to survive, as I believed I had.

Later, we toured the camp and he introduced me to women without husbands and boys without fathers. Proudly, he said they were in Israeli jails and that being there was a badge of honor among the Palestinian people. He explained that Palestinian boys attained a high degree of honor not just by going to jail but by returning there again and again. I left feeling that our cultures might never understand each other.

Last weekend, after months of watching a similar stalemate between President Bush and Saddam Hussein, I am reminded of that Palestinian visit. It is about power. Today we have it and they do not. We are fighting to keep the power. They are fighting to get it. The rules, the means, the logic of the powerful and the powerless are simply not the same.

Ken Hamblin is a Denver columnist and radio personality.

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