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Understanding the problems in the Middle East

By David Winder / August 30, 1982

Recognize the man on this page with the big smile, the short stubby beard, and the checkered Arab headdress?

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If you have been following the news coming out of Beirut in Lebanon these past few weeks, you will have no difficulty knowing who he is.

His name is Yasser Arafat. He is a Palestinian Arab. He's the head of the PLO. That stands for the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO have been leaving Beirut in thousands after coming under heavy bombardment from the Israelis. Palestinians who are civilians - that is to say, not armed fighters like the PLO - are staying behind.

There's probably no person in the world today whose role compares to Yasser Arafat. He is in a very unusual position because he is head of state - just like a president or a prime minister - of a state that doesn't actually exist. In other words, his people, the Palestinian Arabs, have no land.

Mr. Arafat is determined that his people, who number more than 4 million and who live mostly in the Arab world, should live in the land that was once known as Palestine. Palestine has now become the state of Israel.

The word Palestine dates back to Roman times, and refers to the biblical land of the Philistines.

The Palestinians accuse the Israelis of snatching their country from them, when the state of Israel was formed back in 1948. They are fighting to get it back.

Actually what happened was that in 1947 the United Nations agreed that Palestine should be divided into two separate states. One would be Jewish, forming the basis of a new state that the Jews called Israel. The other part of Palestine would be given to the Arabs.

The problem was that the Jews, who had once lived in the Holy Land, as Palestine is sometimes called, had left that territory nearly 2,000 years before. From 1923, after the British took over Palestine, following the breakup of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Jews started flocking back to the land of their ancestors. But they were returning to an area where Arabs had been settled for centuries. Many people in Europe and the United States felt that the Jews, after their terrible persecution by the Nazis in World War II (1939-1945), should have a land of their own. They saw Palestine as the logical place.

This is what led the UN to divide Palestine into those two states - one Jewish, one Arab. The Arabs couldn't accept that.''Why should we make way for the Jews?'' they argued. ''This is our land,'' they said.

They felt the Israelis were outsiders moving in on the Arabs' own land. This opposition from the Arabs to a separate Jewish state in the middle of the Arab states led to the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948-49.

It proved a very costly war to the Arabs. They lost the war. More important, the winning Israelis captured 30 percent more territory than they had started out with under the UN plan. So, the Jewish portion of Palestine got bigger and the Arab portion of Palestine shrank. As a result of that war, there were 400, 000 Palestinian refugees. From these refugees and from their children and from their children's children have come recruits for Yasser Arafat's PLO. They are trying to win back that land.