A Jewish press first: Face-to-face with two of Arafat’s top lieutenants

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The recent horrific beheadings by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recalled an event back in 1974, when other American Jewish journalists and I met for the first time with two top spokesmen of the late Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in the then-headquarters of the PLO in downtown Beirut.

Ninety-one American journalists took part in the first  Editorial Conference on the Middle East, which included press visits to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. For the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, editors of Jewish newspapers were invited to take part openly in such an international media mission.

Our visit to Egypt included a briefing by Egyptian army officers who bragged that while Israel had its Six-Day War in 1967, Egypt had its “Six Hours War,” in which it staged a surprise attack across the Suez Canal, catching Israel off guard, as the Syrian army attacked from the Golan Heights in the north. While Israel was able to eventually defeat its Arab foes, the fact that a cease-fire was achieved while Egyptian troops remained across the Suez Canal was sufficient to give Egypt the restored confidence it needed to take risks for peace. The Editorial Conference on the Middle East was part of that effort.

The visit to Syria was quite unnerving. At the time of our trip, Syria and the United States had not restored diplomatic relations, and we were warned that if we were arrested or detained, we should try to contact either the Italian or Swiss embassies, which were representing U.S. interests in Damascus. As things turned out, we were well treated and our Syrian hosts seemed less menacing than nervous that we were in their midst.

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On the first morning of our stay in Lebanon, our group was having breakfast at our hotel when professors from the American University of Beirut approached us. They asked whether  we wanted to join some other journalists for a visit to the PLO headquarters in downtown Beirut, where we could meet with two of Arafat’s spokesmen, Shafik al-Hout and Nabil Shaath.

I thought to myself, “No way!§  I was not going to be macho and risk being taken captive by the PLO. What bigger prize could the PLO terrorists score than to snag a group of editors from American Jewish newspapers? 

Urged on by more adventurous participants, I found myself in a car being driven by an American from Kansas City named Jack Degalatis, whom we nicknamed Jack Digitalis because our heart rates were almost as fast as his driving.

At the Beirut headquarters of the PLO, we met al-Hout and  Shaath. Al-Hout spoke English in a dull monotone, but Shaath was impressively well spoken and highly knowledgeable about the United States and even its Jewish population.  

“We cannot understand,” Shaath said. “American Jews are so liberal, they want to take ‘in God we trust’ off of American coins. Yet when it comes to Palestinian rights, they are anything but liberal.”  

Shaath, who would later become foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, said the PLO would set up a government on “any piece of Palestinian soil that is liberated through armed resistance or diplomacy.”

The visit to the PLO office, while somewhat tense, was orderly and polite. Afterward, our group assumed we would be taken back to the hotel. Instead, our drivers formed a convoy and sped south to Camp Ein Alwe, near Sidon, Lebanon, the very camp that had been hit by an Israeli attack in retaliation against the PLO murder of Israeli children at the school in Ma’alot.

I had my little hand-held Sony tape recorder with me, and in my most melodramatic voice, said, “If anything should happen to me, and this tape survives, we are being taken to a Palestinian refugee camp, which is under the PLO. I don’t mind saying that I am scared.”  

Every time we reached a cul-de-sac along the road, I feared we would be seized and taken captive.

That worst-case scenario did not happen. At the camp, young PLO fighters with Kalashnikov rifles greeted us.

“We will have peace when our rights are recognized,” one said.  

We saw a pile of rubble and were told that that was the building destroyed by Israel for Ma’alot. When we heard a plane flying overhead, we American Jews prayed that it was not an Israeli plane.

As things turned out, all was well. After our visit to the camp, we were taken back to the apparent safety of our hotel. Apparent is right. That very hotel would be reduced to rubble during the Lebanese Civil War, when Tony Anderson, an American journalit, was captured by terrorists and held for years until his release.

Back at the hotel, wanting to taste American freedom in some form, our group ordered burgers and fries.