Penthouse Retrospective

by Steven A. Emerson Originally Published: March, 1991

Abu Ibrahim | 30 Years Ago This Month

For Joe and his family — none of whom had ever met a Jew — the stories of the marauding Jewish warriors were terrifying. “We heard that the Jews had cut off the fingers and limbs of Arabs,” Joe says, and “how they had raped Arab women, how they ripped out the embryos of pregnant women. We were absolutely petrified.” Still, the village largely stayed put, mostly because there was no place to go. Then one day Joe’s father, who operated a general store, went to nearby Jordan for his store’s commodities.

‘Though it slowly dawned on Joe what the house had been used for, Ibrahim spelled it out: “We use the house for operations, and we use the luggage for our missions,” he confided.’

Not long after, gossip spread through the village that Joe’s father had left to escape anticipated violence. He was accused of being a traitor, and an angry cousin emptied the store of all its goods to avenge the family dishonor. “When my mother found out that there was nothing,” Joe recalls, “she let out a scream that I will always remember. She cried and she cried, beating her breasts.”

The next day the Hagannah — the new Israeli Army — entered the village and took everyone to an Israeli army base to protect them from the fighting. At the base everyone was given challah — the traditional Jewish bread. “The Jews asked us to stay and not leave [to go to Jordan].” For the first time, Joe realized that the Jews were not the monsters they had been portrayed to be. Nevertheless, most villagers elected not to return to their village. Joe’s family fled to Nablus, then went to Damascus, Syria. “We were told we would be able to return in a month or two.” But they would, in fact, never return to the land of their birth: The escalation and hardening of the Arab-Israeli conflict made that impossible. Though some villagers had returned to the village — listening to the pleas of Jewish commanders — most of them would end up as pawns in the most bitter regional conflict in the world today.

Unlike many of the Palestinians who were kept in refugee camps by Syrian authorities, Joe’s family was allowed to integrate into Arab society. Joe went to high school and ended up graduating from military college, receiving a degree in history. Like all Palestinians in the sixties, he was required to serve in the newly established Palestinian resistance. (The Palestine Liberation Organization was created in 1964; the following year its military arm — the Palestine Liberation Army — was established.) Joe rose to the position of captain before being allowed to leave in 1970, although he continued an association with the resistance, even serving as a military adviser in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In the late 1970s, Joe became a businessman, cashing in on the great petrodollar boom in the Persian Gulf. Like many entrepreneurial Palestinians, Joe started a construction business, eventually migrating to Baghdad. While there he became friendly with other Palestinians, including a 30-year-old man named Mohammed Rashid.

Good-looking and tall, Rashid carried himself with elegance and lived with a beautiful, long-haired woman named Fatima. She spoke Arabic with a European accent — Austrian, to be exact — and Joe was impressed by this glamorous couple.

However, the only thing Joe really knew about Rashid was that he worked for the Palestinian resistance, and this held little interest for him, as he identified more with Rashid’s lifestyle than with his work. A flashy dresser and a collector of American automobiles, Joe lived the fast life in Baghdad — that is, as fast as Baghdad allowed. (Unlike his siblings, Joe didn’t get married, preferring to live the life of a playboy.)

On June 6, 1982, Rashid invited Joe to meet his boss — a man called Abu Ibrahim. Joe drove to Rashid’s home, where Abu Ibrahim was sitting in the living room. The contrast between the glamorous Rashid and the stern-looking, ascetic, taciturn Ibrahim was dramatic. “When I met him, he didn’t say too much,” Joe remembers. “He was the type of person who conveyed authority.” It became apparent within a short time just how serious and demanding this man was.

Together they watched the news on television. Israel had just invaded Lebanon, and the scenes of Israeli tanks and jet fighters provoked a bitter reaction from Abu Ibrahim. “How can we stay here while our brothers are dying in Lebanon?” he asked. “It’s not fair that we are living the good life.” He asked Joe if he would be willing to help out. Instinctively, Joe said he would. But he didn’t think for a second that anything would come of his response: It was the type of perfunctory offer that any Palestinian would feel compelled to make. Having escaped the clutches of the wretched life as a refugee, along with the fanaticism of military resistance, Joe wanted to put all of that behind him.

Two days later, Joe was surprised to get a phone call from Abu Ibrahim. “Can you help the cause?” he was asked. “I can give you money,” Joe replied. “Just tell me what you want and I’ll write you a check.”

“That’s not what we need,” Ibrahim countered. “We have plenty of money. We need fighters.” The words rung in Joe’s ears, leaving him speechless. Abu Ibrahim continued. “We must do something on our own, since the Arab countries are unwilling to do anything to help our Palestinian brothers. We need to fight.” Joe was dumbfounded. He decided to be as candid as possible. “Look,” he said nervously, “I don’t believe in launching attacks against civilians.”

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about terrorism can be how little things change over decades and decades. Consider the tale of Abu Ibrahim.

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