Palestinians being driven from gulf states they helped to build As jobs are lost, exodus takes shape

July 29, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT -- The misfortunes of Salim Khassir tell the story of the Palestinian community and its soured relationship with Kuwait.

Mr. Khassir is no soldier. He is the part owner of the once-booming Sultan Salim restaurant in the Palestinian neighborhood of Hawalli. But the burly 47-year-old Palestinian is a victim of a second front in the Persian Gulf conflict.

He is about to join a Palestinian exodus as large as the mass migrations brought about by the series of Arab-Israeli wars, with consequences that are no less calamitous. Palestinians are losing their jobs and homes as fast as governments in the region can make arrangements for other, more pliable people to replace them.

Of the 400,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait before the Iraqi invasion, fewer than 150,000 remain. Their number is expected to fall lower than 100,000 as Kuwait's government carries out an inventive settling of accounts to punish the Palestinian community because some of its members collaborated with Iraq.

In the Palestinians, Kuwait has found an enemy it can taunt at will, and it is using a variety of measures, from police thuggery to bureaucratic hassles, to convince Palestinians who helped to build this wealthy country that they have no future here.

Accused of collaborating with the Iraqis, Mr. Khassir was detained in March. His alleged offense was price-gouging at the restaurant at the time during the occupation when the only item on his menu was beans.

Kuwaiti soldiers beat him in the restaurant as customers watched. Later, at the police station, he says, they used pipes and sticks to beat him again. He was released after proving he had given away food to help dozens of Kuwaiti families.

"I always said I will stay and die in Kuwait because I love Kuwait, but the problems made me decide I have no choice but to leave," Mr. Khassir said. "Maybe 100 or 1,000 Palestinians were thieves or collaborated with the Iraqis -- maybe 10,000 -- but not everyone. People forget that."

He is one of the lucky ones. Relatives in New York have helped him obtain the nearly impossible, a visa for the United States. "I'm leaving," he literally sings from his place at the cash register.

In Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the same phenomenon is happening, albeit on a smaller scale. For conservative regimes, the end of the war has presented a once-in-a-generation chance to settle Arab "family" grievances. Especially against the Palestinians.

Rulers had tried diplomacy-by-checkbook. Beginning with the oil boom of the mid-1970s, whoever had a complaint in the region was simply bought off.

The Palestine Liberation Organization wanted a show of support? It got cash. A country sought guarantees against guerrilla attacks? More money helped. Palestinians were demanding more rights? More cash to the various factions. The Persian Gulf states, too insecure to try anything else, could afford it.

No country paid more to try to buy domestic peace and quiet than Kuwait, making Kuwaitis all the more enraged by Palestinian support for Iraq after their country was invaded. Once the Iraqis were defeated, the Palestinians not surprisingly found few defenders.

"We are going to get rid of the Palestinians one way or another," said a Kuwaiti lawyer who is otherwise known for liberal views. "Whether you did anything wrong or not, it's bye-bye. This is the only thing to do. You have to be very polite: Have airplanes and say, 'Go.' "

In many cases people are leaving the only country they have ever known. Most of the Palestinians living here were also born here, the children of an earlier generation of Palestinians who emigrated from Jordan or the Israeli-occupied West Bank in search of work.

Kuwait's oil wealth ensured that there was no shortage of jobs. Palestinians did the work Kuwaitis were reluctant to do for themselves. In the process, the Palestinians built and managed the country.

OC Palestinians have been Kuwait's engineers and teachers, its mer

chants, physicians, civil servants, salesmen and intellectuals. They are the best-educated and perhaps hardest-working of all Arabs living in the Arabian Peninsula.

But the rulers never allowed them to forget that they lived here on sufferance. Even a Palestinian born in Kuwait could stay only as long as he had a job and a Kuwaiti sponsor -- a privilege for which some sponsors demanded bribes.

A Palestinian with his papers in order still had fewer rights than a "real" Kuwaiti. Until the mid-1980s, a Palestinian (or any other foreigner) was barred from attending public school. He could not obtain a driver's license. He had scant hope of being admitted to the university.

There were always exceptions, usually reserved for the children of senior civil servants, and over time some of the restrictions were relaxed. But others remained rigorously enforced -- a web of rules that helped to build resentment among many Palestinians long before the Iraqi invasion.

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