Wealthy activist emerges as Palestinian hero, villain

August 27, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- If Palestinians living under Israeli rule have an unofficial president in their midst, that person almost certainly is Faisal Husseini. As for the headquarters of a Palestinian government-in-waiting, it is Mr. Husseini's East Jerusalem house.

His house, located beneath the Mount of Olives, is a frequent destination for Palestinian activists and foreign diplomats. They come seeking advice from the man who is the closest thing to Palestinian royalty, the head of a wealthy, well-known family and a forceful advocate for Palestinian political rights.

Mr. Husseini, 51, gradually has emerged as the first among near equals within the delegation of Palestinians trying to negotiate favorable ground rules for a Middle East peace conference. He is generally recognized as the local figure best qualified to say he speaks for the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chairman, Yasser Arafat.

It is Mr. Husseini who led Palestinians in six meetings with Secretary of State James A. Baker III during the latter's visits to Israel. In most of the sessions, Mr. Husseini was joined by Hana Ashrawi, a West Bank university professor, and Zakaria Agha, a Gaza Strip resident.

"I don't like Faisal Husseini, but I respect what he's doing," said a PLO activist and sometime-rival in the West Bank city of Nablus. "It takes heroes to do his work."

For his willingness to consider Arab-Israeli peace talks, Mr. Husseini has already become the target of death threats.

Mr. Husseini always is careful to present himself as a mere intermediary, not a decision-maker. "We deliver to Mr. Baker what we hear from the PLO," he said after their most recent session. "The PLO welcomes in principle the call for talks."

His biggest liability may be his prominence. It is not necessarily welcomed by either Israel or the PLO.

In Israel, a series of governments has bemoaned the lack of local Palestinian leaders, potential alternatives to the PLO. But when potential leaders emerged, they were usually jailed or had their activities restricted in other ways.

Mr. Husseini has been no exception. For five years, beginning in 1982, he was prohibited from traveling outside Jerusalem. Two months after the travel restrictions were lifted, he was arrested and placed in administrative detention, a procedure that allows a person to be held without being charged with a crime or brought to trial.

He was released, jailed again, released, jailed a third time and released in January 1989, after serving a total of 18 months in detention. Israeli authorities accused him "coordinating, inciting and establishing" the Palestinian uprising, despite his having been in custody when it began. At the end of 1989, Israel temporarily banned him from traveling in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There were other, temporary bans on his traveling abroad. Israel allowed the orders to lapse when Mr. Husseini received invitations to hold talks with the foreign ministers of Great Britain and France.

PLO leaders found Mr. Husseini's prominence no less of a threat. For much of its history, the organization has taken pains to isolate anyone threatening to outshine Yassir Arafat or to undercut the authority of the PLO headquarters staff, now in Tunisia.

"The mass media has made Faisal Husseini seem as if he was the real leader," said Said Kanaan, a Nablus businessman allied with Mr. Arafat.

"I don't condemn him. He is a nationalist and a patriot. But we are afraid Israel is trying to create alternative leadership."

Meanwhile, no one can be sure whether the peace talks set to convene in October will actually take place. And if the conference does open, no one knows yet whether the Palestinians will take part.

Along with Mrs. Ashrawi and Mr. Agha, Mr. Husseini recently went to London for private talks with PLO officials. They apparently were seeking a way to accept the U.S. invitation to a peace conference without causing a backlash among their own supporters. Mr. Husseini was questioned by Israeli police yesterday about the London meeting and had to post a $2,000 bail afterward.

Almost regardless of the outcome of the peace conference initiative, Mr. Husseini probably can count on being regarded both a hero and a villain. If talks take place, he will be lauded for encouraging the Palestinians to participate. Extremists will condemn him for that same act. And whatever the Palestinians obtain, he will be congratulated for having helped them get something and criticized for not getting it all.

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