WORLD

Legacy of a warrior

JOHN BIERMAN May 2 1988
WORLD

Legacy of a warrior

JOHN BIERMAN May 2 1988

Legacy of a warrior

SYRIA

The funeral of Khalil al-Wazir— known as Abu Jihad, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s assassinated military commander— was wildly emotional. Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees accompanied the rough wooden coffin to its grave on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, last Wednesday. Shouting to be heard above the hubbub of the crowd and the chanted slogans, a young Palestinian, Mohammed Salti, declared, “They have killed one man and given life to a million souls.” In fact, the April 16 murder in Tunis of Abu Jihad—apparently by an Israeli commando team—had even more immediate consequences for the Palestinians. It brought together mainstream PLO leaders and senior Syrian government officials for the first time since their dramatic split five years ago. And at week’s end, a senior PLO spokesman announced that relations with rival Syria had been “fully restored.”

That reconciliation was clearly not achieved easily. Although Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had given permission for the entire PLO leadership to attend the funeral, Wazir’s old comrade and close friend, PLO

chairman Yasser Arafat, had stayed away. According to aides, Arafat had wanted the funeral to be the occasion for full political talks with the Syrian leadership. But as Farouk Khaddoumi, head of the PLO’S political department, told Maclean's last week, the invitation was “to funeral services and nothing more.” Still, while Arafat stayed away, his PLO subordinates began detailed discussions with the Syrians. As a result of those talks, said PLO spokesman Salim alZaanoun last Friday, Arafat would visit Damascus soon for a meeting with Assad.

The rift between Arafat and Assad has been extremely damaging to the Palestinian movement. The Syrian strongman, in an apparent bid to keep the PLO under his own tight control, had expelled Arafat—and his number 2 man, Wazir—from Damascus in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that drove the PLO from its bases in that country. Since then, Palestinian factions loyal to Arafat have been pitted against those under Assad’s tutelage.

The death of Abu Jihad may help to put an end to such divisions. Still, the historic instability of the Middle East was underscored again at week’s

end, when at least 50 people were killed and 75 injured when a truck bomb exploded in a crowded Tripoli marketplace in Syrian-controlled Lebanon. And even in Israeli governing circles there are those who doubt the wisdom of killing Abu Jihad, clearly fearing that his death will help unify the Palestinian factions. Tacitly acknowledging that an Israeli hit team had carried out the assassination, Minister without Portfolio Ezer Weizman said: “If the decision had been up to me, I would have said no. The assassination did not contribute to the fight against terrorism or to the peace process.”

Indeed, the funeral in Damascus provided a rare show of Palestin-

ian solidarity and resolve. Mourners came from Lebanon and Jordan, helping to pack rooftops and balconies to overflowing and jamming the streets. The slain leader’s coffin was carried two kilometres from his parents’ home in the Yarmouk camp, where 200,000 refugees live, to the so-called Martyrs’ Cemetery on the city’s outskirts. Young men wearing black mourning ribbons on their foreheads carried banners bearing slogans such as “Your blood has not been wasted.” The crush became oppressive as the number of mourners grew to an estimated half-million. At midafternoon, as the flag-covered coffin entered the cemetery gates, thousands of voices chanted “Palestine, Palestine,” and “We give our blood and soul to redeem you, Abu Jihad.”

After the funeral PLO leaders began talks with Syrian representatives, and Palestinian officials said afterward that the two sides agreed to oppose the Middle East peace plan proposed by U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and backed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As well, the Syrians reportedly compromised on their prior insistence that the PLO break off relations with Egypt, the only Arab country to have made peace with Israel. In death, it seemed, Abu Jihad was serving his cause as much as he had done in life.

JOHN BIERMAN

CAROL BERGER

ERIC SILVER