Palestinian glee over leader's survival is cut short

April 09, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

RAMALLAH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The coffee boy rushed into Michael Samieh's clothing store with the news: They have found him alive.

Mr. Samieh leapt to his feet and kissed the messenger. His enthusiasm threatened the cups on the silver tray Abu Khalil carries to deliver steaming coffee and tea to the shopkeepers.

Tears brimmed in the apparel merchant's eyes. The tears he and others shed yesterday contradicted the officially enforced fiction that Yasser Arafat is not the leader of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

For nearly an hour yesterday, the town of Ramallah felt a surge of relief. Residents rejoiced in an extravagance of emotion rarely exercised hereabout. For a change, something went right for the Palestinians. For a change, they felt good about their leader.

But before the hour was through, the harsh facts of life re-emerged. A spontaneous parade in the street was halted by Israeli authorities. Candy thrown by the marchers was replaced by stun grenades thrown by soldiers.

The songs of the Palestine Liberation Organization were replaced by the blare of bullhorns ordering shops closed and streets emptied. The clapping of hands was replaced by the sharp clap of rifle shots as soldiers fired in the air to enforce their orders.

"We were happy. They don't want to see the people happy," a grocer said as he obeyed the curfew order and locked his store.

"We stopped the demonstration because our past experience has been that those demonstrations almost inevitably lead to violence," an Israeli army spokesman said later.

The latest escape by Mr. Arafat -- whose capacity for violence has been matched by innumerable attempts to kill him -- sent Palestinians on a roller coaster of emotion.

They woke to the news of his missing airplane, suddenly confronted with the problem of life after their leader. There has been little warm praise for the 62-year-old chairman of the PLO in the past year, following his disastrous embrace of Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war and the seemingly tawdry secrecy of his recent marriage to a 28-year-old assistant.

But there is no successor of his stature for the Palestinian people. Those here suddenly saw the unity of their movement going down with Mr. Arafat's plane. It was a reminder of his importance. And it resurrected an emotional bond for the man who has doggedly given voice to Palestinian dreams of statehood.

"He is the father of all Palestinians," said Mr. Samieh, the merchant. "If he dies, it will be a disaster."

The Israelis did not share that assessment of the man they see as a terrorist and mastermind of murder, chief of the organization determined to eliminate the Jewish state. "If it turns out that Arafat isn't alive, nobody will mourn," said Defense Minister Moshe Arens, on during a tour yesterday of the Lebanese border.

In Ramallah, a prosperous commercial center 10 miles north of Jerusalem, the celebration began with about 100 young men parading to the main square. They were joined by a line of cars with horns honking.

Someone threw candy to children, who scrambled for the reward. Several bakeries offered huge trays of Oriental pastries, which were distributed to the crowd.

Soldiers in flak jackets then stopped the cars and tried to block the parade. One soldier threw a stun grenade, a device designed to make a frightening noise and a blinding flash. Others followed.

The shooting began first in one street, then another and another. There were no reports of injuries.

After more than four years of such clashes, this is a familiar routine in Ramallah. Businessmen in suits skirted past the soldiers. Women in heels escorted children through the crowd. Merchants conducted last-minute transactions in shops they knew would soon be closed.

Minutes later, the army announced the curfew. Israeli soldiers shouted at merchants to close the corrugated gates of their stores.

Some did not comply quickly enough. Soldiers accosted several men on the street. One banged a Palestinian in the face with a rifle butt.

A Palestinian was thrown to his knees, slapped and punched in front of a reporter, then shoved into the back of a truck where he was hit repeatedly on the head.

A military spokesman later could not say if there were any arrests inthe confrontation. Palestinians are often detained with no formal report of an arrest, the spokesman said.

Within an hour, the streets of Ramallah were cleared. The shutteredstorefronts gave it a ghost-town look. The flush of celebration had ended with reality unchanged: Mr. Arafat was alive, and Ramallah was again under curfew.

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