The Kuwaiti Crisis and the Palestinian Dilemma

By Professor Bichara Khader
CERMAC, Catholic University of Louvain


The invasion of Kuwait on August 2nd 1990 is not a strike of lightening in a peaceful sky. As of July 1990, Palestinians noticed growing tension in Iraq-Kuwait relations. The PLO sought incessantly to improve the situation, to bring the two countries together to handle their differences peacefully between two Arab brothers. The book by P. Salinger and E. Laurent, Secret Dossier: The Hidden Agenda Behind the Gulf War, 1991) pays tribute to Yasser Arafat’s efforts to defuse the crisis.

However, following the failure of talks held in Ryad on July 31st 1990, the PLO expected the worse. The PLO, expecting some form of disturbance at the border, was only really surprised by the swiftness and scale of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Palestinian concerns were suddenly confirmed. The disarray was evident.

For the Palestinians, Kuwait’s occupation brings to life a number of problems. Morally, Palestinians cannot contest the occupation of their own land while admitting it in other horizons. Politically, Palestinians reject any Arab unification through the use of military force. Strategically, they cannot endorse the occupation of a country which, even under criticism, has shown a certain generosity towards Palestinians and has welcomed more than half a million Palestinian workers on its territory, despite claims that treatments of the latter were not always praiseworthy.

The news of the occupation of Kuwait was received with great concern by Palestinians. Palestinian diplomacy thus came into action, wary of the potential catastrophe which could hit the region if no political solution were to be found rapidly. During the Cairo Summit, held in August 1990, Yasser Arafat called for Arab mediation to avoid the hasty internationalization of the crisis. The PLO presented on August 6th 1990 a peace initiative, calling for animmediate retreat of Iraqi troops from Kuwait before August 10th. The Palestinian plan to put an end to this crisis clearly demonstrated hopes for a diplomatic outcome.

Throughout the Gulf crisis, Palestinian actions remained strategically dictated: not to accept a foreign military presence on Arab soil; not to resign to a military solution; not to grant the United States an excuse to shred Iraq’s military potential (which would, ultimately, play in Israel’s favour). In this light, the PLO believed it to be indispensable for Iraq to evacuate Kuwait through diplomatic negotiation. With the objective of achieving mediation between Iraq and Kuwait, it is true that the PLO, while opposing the occupation of Kuwait, refrained from “condemning” it to avoid “legitimizing the intervention of foreign troops by giving them a free-hand” (Interview with Abou Iyad in Tunis, September 11th 1990, published in the Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes, Paris, Autumn 1990 – Abou Iyad was assassinated in Tunis on January 14th 1991).

By maintaining its position, the PLO realized the limited extent of its ground for maneuver. On the one hand, it could not run the risk of radically shifting towards a pro-American military discourse, which would be in contradiction with Palestinian and Arab public opinion. On the other hand, every Palestinian was enraged to see the West come so promptly to Kuwait’s rescue – unjustifiably oppressed, it is true – while Israel had been perpetuating its occupation of Arab territories since1967 and was still pursuing its colonization.

It is in this context that one should understand the gradual shift of the PLO’s position to desperately align itself with Iraq, with a “futile hope to reposition itself in the regional game and the wrong call to avoid cutting itself from its opinion…sensitive to Iraqi allegations to swap the Kuwait occupation with that of the West Bank and Gaza” (Elias Sanbar, Les Palestiniens dans le siècle, Découverte, Gallimard, Paris, 1994, p.120).

Nevertheless, it is clear that Iraq had no intention of liberating Palestine through its invasion of Kuwait, despite Saddam Hussein’s support of the Palestinian cause. In a speech given on August 12th 1990, he suggested that “all problems of occupation in the region, or any other problem presented as such, should be dealt with on equal grounds and according to the same principles which should be enunciated, […] by the Security Council” (Large extracts of this speech can be found in Alain Gresh and Dominique Vidal, Golfe: clefs pour une guerre annoncée, Le Monde Editions, Paris, 1991, pp.263-264).

Saddam Hussein’s intentions are clear: by presenting his military intervention as a response to Israeli occupation and deciding to shoot missiles on Israel, he hoped to provoke an uprising of the Arab masses and the destruction of the anti-Iraqi coalition. Saddam’s trick of associating the Kuwaiti crisis with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon seemed to pay off amongst Arab populations, even though many regarded the occupation of Kuwait to constitute a flagrant aggression. Nevertheless, the mechanical link created by Saddam between Kuwait’s occupation and the liberation of Palestine appeared to be used first and foremost as an alibi.

However, this did not mean that no other links existed between both crises. But these are of different nature: one is an organic link, the other is political: let me explain…

Firstly, the organic connection between both crises is based on the idea that the Near East is an interdependent political system in which different crises and imbalances are organically linked. In this sense, even if both crises are not directly linked, the seismic waves created by the crisis in the Gulf may aggravate instability in other critical zones of the Near East and, in particular, along the Israeli-Palestinian rift.

Secondly, the political connection suggests that, “in this double confrontational situation, both problems can be solved, in a better and cost-efficient way than if both crises had been dealt separately”.

Naturally, this reasoning was not acceptable for the United States and Israel, for many reasons: it would legitimize the Iraqi aggression; it would reinforce Saddam Hussein’s prestige and would lead to preserving Iraq’s military potential, which had become, from their point of view, menacing for regional stability, as it would question Israel’s military domination in the Near East.

However, for the Arab populations and, in particular, the Palestinian people, a differing treatment of both problems by the international community (complacency towards Israel – extreme strictness towards Iraq) was perceived as a clear denial of justice. This explained the popular sympathy for Iraq (not the occupier of Kuwait, but the country that recalls the urgency for a solution to the Palestinian crisis).

Whatever the link between the two crises, the Palestinian decision during the Gulf crisis did not play in favour of Palestinian interests, creating undoubtedly a series of problems for the PLO: dissolution of an official Arab consensus around the Palestinian issue; staining of the PLO’s image in the West and amongst moderate Israelis; plummeting of sympathy in Western public opinion; open hostility by Gulf states, which had been the major providers of funds for the Palestinian machine; and rejection of Palestinian expatriates in the Gulf (B. Khader, L’Europe et les Pays Arabes du Golfe, Publisud-Quorum, Paris, 1994, pp.75-91).

Confronted with a tough decision, the PLO finally chose to consolidate its representativeness amongst Palestinian and Arab populations, at the expense of its respectability in Western public opinion.

It remains that the fracture caused by the Gulf War was unbearable for Palestinians and for all Arabs, with exception: we continue paying this price today. Triggered stupidly, handled without much thought, dealt with through violence, the Kuwaiti crisis had the same devastating effects than the war of 1967 on Arab populations. In the West, a victory of the coalition left, according to Jean Baudrillard, “a bitter taste of a surreal taylor-made victory” (La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu, Galilée, Paris, 1991, p.81) and, as expressed by J.P. Chevènement, “the bitter taste of a war for oil” (Le Vert et le Noir. Intégrisme, Pétrole, Dollar, Grasset, Paris, 1995).