Finished with his tea and backgammon, Deeb Hamouda whipped out a Palestinian newspaper and planted a kiss on the front-page photograph of Jordan’s dying King Hussein.
“He was our best king,” Hamouda, a farmer in his 70s, said with a smile. “But he was the cause of our disaster.”
Hamouda’s remarks at a smoky coffee shop in Ramallah’s central market on Saturday reflect the love-hate relationship Palestinians have had with Hussein over the decades and the mixed feelings they are experiencing as they watch the monarch slip into death.
Like so many Westerners, Palestinians admire Hussein’s pragmatism and moderation. They see him as a courageous survivor who created a country out of nothing and protected it by cleverly juggling alliances with more powerful forces in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Israel and the United States.
Yet many Palestinians believe that the king’s success and Jordan’s fortunes often came at the expense of a state of their own.
Hussein has been a father figure in a patriarchal society, nurturing the Palestinians’ 1993 peace agreement with Israel through its worst moments. Palestinians are both grateful and resentful for this because the peace agreement has failed to produce the political and economic benefits they expected.
Now, as they approach final negotiations with the Israelis, they feel they are losing the most powerful advocate of their interests on the world stage.
With the king on a respirator, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said he still hoped Hussein might recover.
“We, as an Arab and Muslim nation, are in need of him,” Arafat said in Gaza City.
An editorial in the newspaper Al Quds said: “The Palestinian people cannot forget that King Hussein stood by them even during the most difficult moments. He was always a strong supporter of . . . the just solution to the Palestine question through the ending of the occupation and establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with Holy Jerusalem as its capital.”
Yet, while some people focus on Hussein’s efforts to resolve the Mideast conflict, many of the more militant Palestinians blame the Hashemite family for helping to start it.
The British colonial government divided Palestine in 1921 and created what was then called Transjordan under the rule of Hussein’s grandfather, King Abdullah. Many Palestinians believed that he further sacrificed their state to Israel in order to grab the West Bank for himself in 1948.
Abdullah’s attempts to get Gaza too, and subsequent secret peace negotiations with Israel, eventually cost him his life. He was shot by a Palestinian on the steps of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque in 1951.
Even today, said a 23-year-old lawyer from the West Bank city of Janin, “most of us believe Hussein’s grandfather committed treason against Palestine. He sold out the Palestinians, and Hussein continued to sell us out.”
Hussein assumed power at the age of 16 after his father’s brief reign and ruled over the West Bank and East Jerusalem until Israel captured the territory in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Many older Palestinians in Ramallah remember Hussein’s rule there with nostalgia, skimming over undemocratic, even repressive, aspects of his government.
“I have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so I must tell the truth,” said Issa Jabel, 50, leaning earnestly over a Formica table and a full ashtray. “He helped us a lot. He gave us citizenship and helped farmers in the West Bank. . . . We had the rule of law under Jordan. Now we have anarchy, not even a complete government.”
His friend Hamad Salah, 67, was a soldier in the Jordanian National Guard in Jericho when a young Hussein came in to review the troops. Salah complained about the soldiers’ low pay and, in response, received better food rations.
“He used to listen to people. He would come and listen to our problems, understand our language. He was generous and close to the people. He was the best among Arab leaders,” Salah said between cups of sweet coffee.
Yet some Palestinians blame Hussein for “surrendering” Jerusalem to the Israelis in 1967. This was a note sounded by the radical Islamic group Hamas at a rally in Hebron on Friday, despite the fact that Hussein has allowed the group to use his country as a base for their political operations.
Other Palestinians recall darker chapters of their relations with the king, who supported the fight for a Palestinian state early on and tolerated Palestine Liberation Organization bases in Jordan until the guerrilla group turned against him in 1970.
Under attack from the PLO, the king ordered an all-out assault on their bases that left thousands of Palestinians dead. The official Jordanian figure was 1,500 people killed, but Palestinians say as many as 30,000 died in what became known as Black September.
Some do not forgive Hussein for making peace with Israel in 1994 before ensuring that the Palestinians got theirs.
“I hate everything that King Hussein did,” a 42-year-old East Jerusalem businessman said. “He did everything in his power to save his own neck and kingdom. He was the only Arab leader who gave the Palestinians passports, not because he loved us, but because he had needed to increase the population of Jordan.”
Ramallah vendor Mohammed Ceder, 43, concurred.
“Would you give up your land for a passport?” he asked. “The problem is, as Palestinians, we have lost hope. We don’t give a damn about anything.”
Not all Palestinians are so angry about the past or pessimistic about the future.
“We need a ruler like King Hussein here in the West Bank,” said a 30-year-old laborer who gave only his first name, Yusef. Arafat, he said, has not been so savvy or successful.
“King Hussein is a big loss for the Arab nation,” an unemployed laborer named Ray added. “He is a big leader of the peace process, and we all counted on him. We hope his son will be as good as he is. We’re hoping he will do the right thing. The right thing is peace with a Palestinian state.”
Hussein’s 37-year-old son, Abdullah, named for his great-grandfather, has taken over authority as regent.
Some Palestinian businessmen and political analysts say the changeover to a new generation could prove surprisingly dynamic.
“On a human level, there is sadness for a man who has been suffering,” Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab said. “But the more I think about Abdullah, his successor, the more I think it opens up possibilities for the Palestinians in the long term.”