AMMAN, JORDAN, DEC. 11 -- When Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard smashed into Kuwait on Aug. 2, many of the estimated 320,000 Palestinians living there hailed the arrival of Iraqi troops as a liberating force. They had grown frustrated with what they saw as second-class status and a lack of civil rights, even though for decades they had played vital roles in building modern banking, engineering, construction and education systems in Kuwait.
"Kuwait's treatment of us was nothing less than a form of apartheid," said Labib Kamhawi, a Palestinian writer and political analyst with many relatives there. "No matter how important our jobs were, we were not allowed to live in the same areas or go to the same schools as the Kuwaitis."
Elderly Palestinians who had worked as long as four decades in Kuwait say they were not allowed to retire there because they were considered unwelcome aliens once they no longer held jobs. Even Palestinians born and reared in Kuwait needed a visa to return whenever they left the country.
But the depredations of Iraqi occupation troops, especially since the Popular Army replaced the more disciplined forces of the Republican Guard, have disenchanted many Palestinians who, like those Kuwaitis who stayed behind, found themselves mercilessly harassed, their property confiscated and bank savings rendered almost worthless when Iraq converted Kuwaiti dinars into the much-lower-valued Iraqi currency.
An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 Palestinians have made their way here from Kuwait since the crisis began. The poorer ones have joined other permanent residents of the Bakaa refugee camp outside Amman; the more fortunate have sought refuge with relatives in Jordan or the Israeli-occupied territories. The huge influx has exacerbated a serious economic crisis here and caused support for Saddam, Iraq's president, to wither among one of the few Arab communities that defended his assault on Kuwait.
Many Jordanians and Palestinians who once applauded Iraq's invasion of Kuwait now complain openly about the wanton brutality they witnessed or learned about from refugees who fled during Iraq's four-month occupation.
The noisy street demonstrations that showed support for Saddam at the outset of the Iraqi occupation have died out. These days, Palestinians are chalking up their flight from Kuwait as yet another milestone in their history of misfortune and ceaseless odyssey: from the orange groves of Jaffa before Israel's creation to tent camps in the West Bank, to tin-shack hovels near Beirut, to gleaming high-rises in Kuwait -- and back to cold, concrete abodes on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.
"We keep learning the same lesson over and over," said Palestinian businessman Edward Jasser, whose family originated in Bethlehem but settled in Kuwait. "We can always count on being the victims of crises that were not of our making."
Behind the dramatic transformation of Palestinian attitudes lies a surprisingly optimistic conviction among many here that a new opportunity for gaining a homeland will spring from the Persian Gulf crisis. "The Palestinian is a political animal that always looks to the future," explained Kamhawi. "If we get our homeland, all of these losses will be seen as an investment that transcends personal interests."
Their disaffection with the Iraqis has not improved class-related tensions with Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Many Palestinians speak with loathing about the decadence and arrogance they observed among some members of the gulf's royal families during their stay in the region. They bemoan the waste of wealth on personal indulgences -- money they say should have been used to benefit Arab political causes. They also wonder why the United States would ever commit so many troops to defend such undemocratic governments.
Last week, a delegation from a resistance group known as the Kuwaiti Popular Front came to Amman to address the Palestinian community and solicit its support in the fight to oust Iraqi troops from their country. Many Palestinians boycotted the meeting, and some who attended asked some hostile questions.
"How many times did you receive a Palestinian Arab in your house?" a Kuwaiti politician reportedly was asked. His reply was an embarrassed silence.
Despite the hardships that many have endured, few Palestinians seem willing to criticize Saddam. The Iraqi dictator still retains some of their respect because he is considered one of the few Arab leaders who has dared to stand up to Israel and the West.
"We don't understand why he is ravaging Kuwait," said a Palestinian educator who requested anonymity because his family remains in Kuwait. "But at least he is not appeasing the West or acting servile like other Arab leaders, such as King Fahd or the emir of Kuwait."
Saddam's insistence on linking the gulf crisis with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also sustained some sympathy because it challenges what many Palestinians see as a double standard in American policy. As they see it, when Iraq flouts U.N. demands for a complete pullout from Kuwait, the United States leads the charge to impose sanctions and threaten war; when Israel ignores U.N. resolutions on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the United States remains silent.
"You cannot imagine the frustration that creates," said Amin Mahmoud, a Palestinian university professor who taught in Kuwait and returned to Amman three weeks ago. "People ask why the U.S. cannot call Saddam Hussein's bluff and work actively for an international conference if that will get him out of Kuwait. You could solve two problems at once."
The Bush administration's reluctance to approve a call for an international conference on the Middle East because it might "reward" Saddam has perplexed many Arabs here, who feel that reviving efforts to resolve the Palestinian question at this time may be one of the best methods short of warfare to force an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
Some Palestinians hope that tales of cruelty under Iraqi occupation will prompt Iraq's former allies to exert new pressure on Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait.
Palestinians believe that an Iraqi troop withdrawal, perhaps just before the Jan. 15 deadline set by the United Nations, would defuse the gulf crisis and open the door for an international conference on the Middle East, focusing on the festering problem of a Palestinian homeland.
"We only want to move one last time," said Jasser, the businessman. "If we can finally settle and stay in our family towns and villages, all of these sacrifices will be worth it."