Fahd Kawasmeh, useful to Palestinian extremists as long as he remained a symbol of resistance to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, was gunned down in Amman on Saturday -- for putting his political influence to the cause of moderation. Kawasmeh was one of those unfortunates who, placing good sense above fanaticism, was reviled by both sides.
He became mayor of his home town of Hebron in 1976, when Israel gambled that free elections would produce officeholders well disposed to the military administration. Instead, they carried Palestinian nationalists to power throughout the West Bank.
Kawasmeh was a nationalist long before the Israelis arrived in 1967. He fought for establishment of a Palestinian state even under the Jordanian rule that preceded Israel's. He campaigned for office in 1976 on a nationalist ticket.
At the time, Kawasmeh once told me, he had no formal connection with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO, at first, even urged a boycott of the election. Nonetheless, he was a supporter of the PLO, he said, because its objective was an independent Palestine -- independent not only of Israel but of the Arab world.
Once elected, Kawasmeh tended conscientiously to the city's business, as even the Israelis admitted. But in 1980, the military government, in reprisal for a wave of disorders, exiled three West Bank leaders, Kawasmeh among them, without charge or trial. Though Israel's courts later ruled the expulsion illegal, Kawasmeh was never allowed to return.
I met him a few months after his expulsion, during a tour in which he appeared in a public meeting at a local synagogue to speak of his differences with Israel. He denounced terror, but refused to disavow the PLO. He insisted on the right of Palestinians to establish a state on the West Bank and Gaza, but he insisted it would live at peace with Israel.
The meeting, which The Washington Post described as ''chaotic," made no converts. The Post reported that "fervent Zionists" repeatedly interrupted Kawasmeh with "hoots, catcalls and shouts of 'murderer,' 'Nazi' and 'down with the PLO'.
After that, I saw Kawasmeh several times in Amman, his home in exile. He remained a symbol of the Palestinian cause, but, as a moderate, there was no place for him in the delicately balanced circles of power of the PLO. He was frustrated, feeling useless.
What made Kawasmeh different from the PLO leadership, I think, was that he had actually lived under Israeli rule. Most of the top PLO leaders have been emigres all their adult lives, nursing grievances, perpetuating distortions of reality. Much of Kawasmeh's family was still in Hebron. His home was a tangible place. He knew Israelis as people, and spoke warmly of those who understood the Palestinian cause and wanted peace.
Kawasmeh was a "moderate," I believe, in applying a human measure to his Palestinian nationalism. His people were suffering under occupation. How best to end it? Certainly not by continuing a futile struggle that at best would take decades to win, and might never be won at all.
"Sure we believe that all of Palestine is ours," he said to me, "and so do the Jews. At the same time that we ask for our rights of self-determination, we cannot deny them theirs. We each want our state. Maybe some day we will unite into a federation or a confederation, but we must decide that together."
Kawasmeh's views overlapped those of the Israeli peace movement, which states its goal as the exchange of "territory for peace." Kawasmeh was not willing to relinquish the dream of all of Palestine -- nor deny the Jews the same dream. But he argued that, based on the demarcation of 1967, each side should renouclaim on the other's land in return for an end to conflict.
After the PLO's military defeat in Lebanon in 1982, Kawasmeh found himself less isolated. The PLO became more polarized, and the majority, led by Chairman Yasser Arafat, gravitated toward his position, while the extremists turned more intransigent.
The split burst into the open in November, at a meeting of the Palestine National Council, the official governing body of the PLO. Influenced by Syria, the extremists declined to attend. Without them, the meeting enacted steps meant as signals of a willingness to become part of a peace process.
Among them was the election of Fahd Kawasmeh to a seat on the PLO executive committee. It was the first time someone of his views, coming from the West Bank, had sat in such a high PLO post. He had traded the symbolism of resistance for a position of influence in behalf of moderation in the Palestine movement.
In that position, he became a target for assassins. His death will make any settlement a little harder to reach.