Said Musa Maragha, a Palestinian military commander who rose through the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization to become a trusted lieutenant of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, then broke away to lead Syrian-backed Palestinian rebels who besieged Arafat’s forces in northern Lebanon, has died. He was 86.
Maragha, known as Abu Musa, died of cancer Tuesday in Damascus, where he had lived for many years, his aides and hospital officials told the Associated Press.
Born in 1927 in Silwan, a village overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, Abu Musa was a man of shifting loyalties but also one who resolutely opposed the peace process with Israel.
After the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, the defeat of Arab armies and the Jordanian occupation of the West Bank, Abu Musa joined the Jordanian military and was sent for training at Sandhurst, the British military academy. In 1967, he fought against Israel in the Six Day War, which saw the Arabs defeated and led to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and other territories.
In 1970, he defected from the Jordanian army, joining Palestinian fighters who were then using Jordan as a base to attack Israel. The next year, the Jordanians forced the PLO out of the kingdom in fierce battles that became known as Black September.
Abu Musa, like other Palestinian fighters, ended up in Lebanon, where he joined Arafat’s Fatah movement, the largest faction in the PLO, and rose to become the top PLO commander in southern Lebanon. Considered a top military man, he fought against the Syrians during their 1976 intervention in the Lebanese Civil War and forces under his command repelled a Syrian advance on the city of Sidon that summer.
His role in confronting the Syrians was widely viewed as the reason he became the target of an assassination attempt in the Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh in 1978. He survived, although he was hit by a hail of bullets. Syria was alleged to be behind the attack.
Abu Musa was a senior commander in PLO military operations in Lebanon during Israel’s siege of Beirut in 1982, but began to turn away from Arafat — and toward Syria — when the PLO chairman began exploring the idea of a partnership with Jordan in pursuing peace with Israel. Abu Musa and other Fatah rebels were also angered by Arafat’s appointment of two top PLO commanders who were accused of corruption and of fleeing during the Israeli invasion.
Abu Musa was backed by Syrian troops as his men took over PLO positions and arms depots in Syria and in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. The Syrian-backed dissidents eventually forced the evacuation of Arafat’s fighters from the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli in December 1983.
Even some top PLO leaders acknowledged that the dissidents had legitimate grievances. But many Palestinians, including his own mother, voiced anger and disappointment that he had led the fight against Arafat.
“You and Arafat were like brothers for more than 15 years,” Miriam Maragha told pro-Arafat Palestine Radio in a 1983 interview quoted in the New York Times. “How could you become a puppet in the hands of the Syrians?”
Abu Musa eventually moved to Damascus, where he joined the Palestinian National Salvation Front, which brought together all factions opposed to Arafat and the peace negotiations with Israel.
In 1989, he told reporters in Damascus that Arafat should stand trial for treason, for recognizing Israel and for abandoning the principles of the Palestinian revolution.