Cool assassins stir Palestinian hatred: Robert Fisk, at the funeral in Sidon of Moueen Shabaita, a trusted ally of Yasser Arafat murdered this week, says support for the PLO leader among refugees is becoming a dangerous business

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The Independent Online
THEY COVERED Moueen Shabaita's body with a Palestinian flag yesterday and, in an upstairs room beside the Salahedin mosque, mourned his death. Gunmen from the Palestine Liberation Organisation were everywhere; sitting among the mourners, next to the murdered man's sons, on the concrete stairwell, lounging in the street outside.

'Abu Ammar (Arafat) called by phone from Tunis as soon as he heard of my father's death,' one of the PLO man's sons, Iyad, said, tears streaming down his face. 'He told my family about the conspiracy against the PLO.'

The Plot. As usual, it was everywhere in the Ein Helweh camp. In the upper room beside the mosque, in the martyrs' graveyard where they laid Shabaita to rest to a 21-gun salute; even on the stretch of dismal, garage-lined highway where his car was stopped on Monday - where a professional assassin fired three bullets into his brain. 'He was in a coma when he reached us,' a doctor at the Hammoud hospital said yesterday. 'He was brain dead.' A floor above the dying man, Zeid Wehbeh, Mr Arafat's senior political representative, lay in bed recovering from bullet wounds - victim of an assassination attempt six days earlier.

Moueen Shabaita was a schoolmaster by trade, head teacher at the local United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) school, and ostentatiously maintained his offices inside the refugee camp; to make sure, according to the locals, that everyone knew he was earning his own living, not taking the PLO's notorious financial handouts from Tunis.

A bespectacled, silver-haired man of 48, he was a founder member of Fatah, respected by all - or almost all - the old PLO comrades who followed Mr Arafat from one defeat to another. Shabaita had been imprisoned for a year by the Israelis in their camp at Ansar after the 1982 Israeli invasion.

For the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, supporting Mr Arafat, it seems, is turning into a very dangerous business. Teenagers with rocket-propelled grenades guarded the funeral cortege yesterday, gunmen with belt-fed machine-guns stood atop the roof of the local PLO office. Mr Wehbeh was smuggled home from the Hammoud hospital on Tuesday with an air ticket to Europe in his pocket. 'I didn't ask where they were taking him,' the doctor said. 'If I had and they had killed him too, I would have been blamed for the murder.'

Which sums up the atmosphere of terror and suspicion in Sidon after the sixth attack against Arafat loyalists - four of them in the occupied territories - since the PLO- Israeli accord was signed two months ago. And who is to blame? The PLO said Abu Nidal's men - those most infamous of all Palestinian assassins who have variously worked for Libya, Iraq and Syria - were responsible. 'Israeli Mossad agents' were the culprits, according to Shabaita's own Fatah guerrilla organisation; 'Mossad' is their shorthand for Abu Nidal.

Second in the list of suspects was Lieutenant-Colonel Munir Makdah, the Fatah leader in Sidon, who was fired by Mr Arafat last month for staging a mutiny in protest at the PLO's agreement with Israel. Colonel Makdah had been unwise enough to announce publicly that he would 'silence the tongues of all those who support Arafat', a statement that put him near the top of any PLO hit list in the immediate aftermath of Shabaita's murder. But there was Colonel Makdah yesterday afternoon, walking to the overgrown martyrs' cemetery in the first row of mourners, alongside the man Mr Arafat chose to replace him, Lieutenant-Colonel Badih Krayem. So cross Colonel Makdah off the list.

Then there was the dissident PLO man who could be found ruminating on the assassination even before the dead man was lowered into his grave in front of his three sons and three daughters.

'We heard that Shabaita was about to sign a proclamation in which he also condemned Abu Ammar's accord,' he said. 'Makdah has been going around privately telling people that Kemal Mehda, the head of Arafat's security here, found out about the proclamation and decided to get rid of Shabaita on Arafat's behalf.'

So Arafat, too, was to be regarded with suspicion. But not in the eyes of the murdered man's family. 'We all believe that the Gaza-Jericho plan is the only way,' Iyad said. Unshaven and overwhelmed with tiredness, he had flown back from his college studies in Germany for the funeral. 'There is no other choice. Most of the people in Ein Helweh think that Gaza-Jericho is the one option left for us.'

A Palestinian civil war - between the PLO and those who reject any peace with Israel - has been going on in Lebanon for well over a year; it started 15 months before Mr Arafat made his pact with Yitzhak Rabin, and has so far taken the lives of 26 Palestinians in Sidon, Beirut and Tyre. But the hatreds now being engendered in Lebanon, where almost all the Palestinian refugee families were exiled in 1948 and are thus excluded from the Arafat accord, may yet reflect a state of civil war which many fear could break out in the West Bank and Gaza.

(Photograph omitted)