In Jordan, Even Arab Moderates Back Iraq WAR IN THE GULF


January 27, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Dan Fesperman is a Sun staff correspondent.

AMMAN, JORDAN — Amman, Jordan. While bombs and missiles rain down on its neighbors, the battle for Jordan has been won without a shot.

Saddam Hussein has taken the country by acclamation.

Such an outcome is not surprising in the tumbledown cinder block shacks of the Palestinian refugee camps around town, where young and old alike ululated with joy and literally danced in the streets at word of the first missile strike on Israel.

But it is a surprising result -- and, for many Americans, puzzling -- in the comfortable homes of moderates such as Nazri Atalla, a wealthy, Westernized man who forms opinions with a deliberation not found amid the zealotry of the camps.

It is Mr. Atalla's corner of the population that has secured Jordanian opposition to the United States and could later complicate the Bush administration's postwar plans for the Middle East.

Like his country's leader, King Hussein -- who he served for more than eight years as personal secretary -- Mr. Atalla was educated in England. Also like his king, he has an American wife. His children have attended American schools. He answers to the non-Arabic nickname of Tony. And as he sat on a couch for an interview one recent evening, a television set in his living room beamed the sharp image of an American network's morning news show, thousands of miles and seven time zones away.

When Mr. Atalla speaks of Saddam Hussein, he is well aware of the Iraqi president's penchant for bullying and violence, even among fellow Arabs. "As Arabs," Mr. Atalla admitted, "we tend to forget that Saddam Hussein started this whole thing."

Why, then, did he -- like many of his countrymen, as evidenced in dozens of interviews during the past week -- turn so suddenly and passionately anti-American with the outbreak of war?

"Because we know deep in our heart that it is a much bigger thing than just Kuwait," he said. "No doubt, he [Mr. Hussein] invaded a sovereign country. But for George Bush, it was a matter of, 'How dare you challenge the new world order.' We always knew there was a double standard in the way America dealt with the Arab world, but it never came out so clear until this time."

By that, he means the difference between the decisive U.S. action against Iraq and its sluggish reactions in the other great conflict of the Middle East: Israel vs. The Palestinians.

Understanding the white-hot emotions behind that struggle is the key to understanding the turn against the United States in Jordan, where half the population is Palestinian. (In Amman, the portion is 70 percent and growing).

They are emotions lit from a fuse stretching back to around the turn of the century, when the Zionist movement for the establishment of a Jewish homeland began taking hold in the Arab region of Palestine.

By 1948, the movement had grown strong, and tensions among the resident Arabs had increased proportionately. So, the United Nations mapped out the new nation of Israel for the Zionists and the new nation of Palestine for the Arabs.

The Zionists went along with the plan. The Palestinians went to war, joined by Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Mr. Atalla was a schoolboy in England then, and a Palestinian.

"Food was still on ration [in England] then, and there was a Jewish family -- a family of a fellow student -- and they used to send me a food package once a month," he said. "When the war started, they stopped it. And that hurt. And I realized then that there was a great difference between Arab and Jew."

The war was a disaster for the Arabs, only resulting in more land for Israel. What was left of Palestine was gobbled up by Egypt and Jordan, and the Palestinian refugee cause was born.

In 1967, the attack of another ill-fated Arab confederation, which again raised the banner of the Palestinian cause, only resulted in more land for Israel, resulting in turn in still more Palestinian refugees.

Today, out of 4 million Palestinians in the world, 15 percent live in refugee camps, according to the United Nations.

And perhaps nowhere does the anti-Israeli rage burn brighter than in the Baka Camp, nestled in a valley on the outskirts of Amman. With 100,000 residents crammed into shack piled upon shack, it is the world's largest refugee camp, and a look at living conditions makes it easy to see how hatred tends to grow there.

It is here that a man told a friend on the morning the first missile landed in Tel Aviv, "If they attack again, I will buy you a sweet."

Occasionally the ill feelings of the Palestinians have been directed at Arab nations. King Hussein had to put down a bloody uprising and fend off an assassination attempt in 1970.

Mr. Atalla remembers erecting steel shutters in front of his doors and windows back then.

And though he winced each time the United States failed to act in response to an Israeli act of aggression -- such as the 1982 invasion of Lebanon -- or the seizing of more Arab land, he and like-minded Jordanians managed to keep their minds open to the West.

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