Palestinians View Kuwait as a Lost Haven


For Palestinians living in Kuwait, the signs of hostility were as plain to see as the clothes on their backs.

Bands of embittered Kuwaitis, angered at what they saw as Palestinian collaboration with the invaders from Iraq, roamed the streets at night looking for targets, and the Palestinians were easily identified because they usually wear Western clothing instead of the long white robes favored by Kuwaitis.

Hakam, a 25-year-old public works employee, needed no personal experience with all this. Just hearing about it was enough to drive him and his family out of the home they had lived in for many years. Two weeks ago, he and his parents fled by car across the desert, first to Iraq and then on into Jordan.


“The Palestinian people don’t know what is right any more, or where to find a haven,” Hakam said over a fifth cup of coffee at a restaurant in Suweilih, a largely Palestinian town northwest of Amman, Jordan’s capital.

Among the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled Kuwait since the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion are a handful of Palestinians with tales of danger and fear that involve not the conquering Iraqis but resentful Kuwaitis.

The Palestinians, unlike the other foreigners who worked in oil-rich Kuwait, have been identified as a kind of fifth column for the Iraqis. Kuwait was once a stable place for Palestinians, but since the invasion, it has become just one more precarious perch.

There were about 350,000 Palestinians in Kuwait and they made up one of the largest groups of foreign workers in the sheikdom. Of Kuwait’s pre-invasion population of 2 million, fully two-thirds were foreigners attracted by the relative affluence, even though they were regarded as second-class people.

The great majority of Palestinians in Kuwait hold Jordanian passports and come from either Jordan or the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The money they were able to send back to their families was a mainstay of the Palestinian economy.

Now, the prospects for Palestinians in a Kuwait annexed by Iraq are not at all clear.


Some reports say that in general, if discreetly, the Palestinians welcomed the Iraqi conquerors. Palestinians here admit openly that they resented the haughty Kuwaitis. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which claims to represent all Palestinians, put its official stamp on these sentiments by openly supporting the invasion.

The Palestinians say that in Kuwait they sensed a friendliness among the Iraqi invaders.

“When a soldier or policemen stopped us at a checkpoint, they treated us with respect,” Samir, a 30-year-old office worker now in Jordan, said. “That was the first time we felt good about being Palestinians in Kuwait.”

Although the Kuwaitis quickly became aware of the Palestinian feelings, they concealed their displeasure for a while. For the first week or so after the invasion, Kuwaitis tended to stay indoors, fearing what the Iraqis might do. Palestinians, feeling no fear, sometimes ventured out to buy food for their friends and neighbors.

“I still felt we and the Kuwaitis were friends,” Samir said.

But then a Kuwaiti resistance movement sprang up, and the targets were not only Iraqis but Palestinians as well. Small groups of Kuwaitis, under cover of darkness, moved through the streets looking for victims. Threatening graffiti appeared on the walls: “Kill a Palestinian and Go to Heaven.”

“The new rulers came and the Kuwaitis started to hate us,” Hakam said.

For Palestinians, the situation in Kuwait is only the latest in a series of tragedies since hundreds of thousands of them fled what is now Israel in 1948.

In 1970, King Hussein drove the PLO out of Jordan, and in the aftermath, many Palestinians fled to Lebanon.

But Lebanon failed them too. The PLO set up what amounted to an armed state within a state there, and its militia took sides in the bitter Lebanese civil war. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon to drive out the PLO, many Lebanese at first welcomed the Israelis. Palestinians are still regarded with suspicion by many Lebanese.

Now, in Kuwait, the fate of the large Palestinian community again hangs in the balance, and it appears that the Palestinians stand to lose something no matter how the crisis is resolved.

If Iraq prevails, Palestinian analysts say, the wealth of the oil state that nourished Palestinians in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Amman and elsewhere may dry up. The Iraqis may decide to take the Palestinians’ jobs and give them to needy Iraqis.

Already the Kuwaiti Central Bank, which had been run by Palestinian administrators, is reportedly controlled by Iraqi executives sent down from Baghdad.

Moreover, the absorption of Kuwaiti currency into Iraq’s economy has reduced the value of Palestinian earnings and savings by a disastrous 90%.

If Iraq withdraws from Kuwait, lingering mistrust may bring on a purge of Palestinians from many jobs, and perhaps the expulsion of tens of thousands, if not all, Palestinians.

Refugees like Samir and Hakam are not at all sure of the future.

Hakam was born in Kuwait and holds a Jordanian passport but considers himself a Palestinian. His family, which came from Nablus in the West Bank, has lived in Kuwait since 1957.

“It was all like a dream,” he said. “We woke up one morning and everything had changed.”

He and his family left Kuwait two weeks ago.

Samir echoed Hakam’s description of dizzying change. His parents are from Tulkarm, which is also in the West Bank, and had lived in Kuwait for 35 years. They left the oil sheikdom with nothing but the money in their pockets, some luggage and their car.

Both families are renting apartments in Jordan, and they are running out of money.

“I will go back if things quiet down,” Hakam said. “That’s where I made my money.”

Samir said: “We lived there happily before. I hope we can again.”

The situation of the Palestinians in Kuwait has shaken the PLO, but it seems unlikely that the organization will change its pro-Iraqi stand. In the months leading up to the invasion, PLO chief Yasser Arafat had all but taken up residence in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. PLO officials here say he felt safer there than in Tunisia. He has also moved troops and followers to Baghdad.

“They feel more comfortable there,” said Omar Khatib, the Palestinian ambassador to Jordan. Jordan recognizes the PLO declaration of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and the PLO maintains an embassy here.

Saddam Hussein’s anti-Israeli rhetoric, along with the apparent military power to back it up, is also an attraction for Arafat.

The reverse side of the PLO’s sympathy for Iraq is its antipathy for Kuwait, even though Kuwait was a generous donor to PLO causes. Kuwait supported the main Palestinian hospital in the West Bank, along with schools, and it provided relief for Palestinian families damaged by Israeli economic measures in putting down the Palestinian uprising.

But Kuwait was not generous enough in the eyes of many Palestinians, who regard the sheikdom’s huge investments in the West as a betrayal.