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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 4, 1985, Page 16


Alex M. Odeh: American Martyr

By Andrew I. Killgore

First it was the Palestine Problem. Many Palestinians, some Jews and a few British lost their lives inside Palestine. Then it became the Arab-Israeli Dispute. Tens of thousands of Arabs—Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Palestinians—and thousands of Jews died inside Palestine and surrounding countries. Dozens of others were killed in shadowy assassinations in the Middle East and Europe.

Americans gave billions in arms and money to Israel. Russians riposted with billions to Syria and (sometimes) Egypt. The U.S. and USSR brandished awesome weapons at each other. Hundreds of Americans—diplomats, sailors, Marines, businessmen, tourists and bystanders—died violent deaths in Lebanon, on the high seas, and at remote embassies. The White House, Congress and the State Department sprouted heavy concrete bomb barriers, and Congress appropriated billions to turn U.S. Embassies into fortresses overseas.

Although the ever-widening reverberations of the Arab-Israeli dispute have claimed many thousands of victims, the murder of Alexander M. Odeh in Santa Ana, California, on October 11, 1985 is, nevertheless, different.

An American Tragedy

It is a direct result, on American soil, of the Arab-Israeli dispute. It was also premeditated. Odeh's office had been broken into and the bomb that killed him was planted the night before.

This latest victim of the Arab-Israeli dispute was an American citizen who came to the U.S. after Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. He was married and the father of three daughters aged 7, 5 and 2. All are too young to understand why their father died. One will have no memory of him at all.

Alex Odeh was West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). The night before his death he had appeared on television to deny media assumptions that the PLO had a role in hijacking an Italian cruise ship and murdering an American passenger. He had portrayed Yassir Arafat as a man ready to make peace. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that Odeh was killed because he was a Palestinian-American who was not afraid to express, openly and eloquently, his views on the Palestinian cause. There are, in the United States, two to three million persons of Arab extraction, including 150,000 Palestinians. These millions now must wonder, as they go about their daily lives, if some hidden assassin lies in wait. Alex Odeh's death means that the United States of America, traditionally a refuge for "huddled masses yearning to be free" is less of a refuge: For Arab Americans, for Jews, for us all. Once killing over the Arab-Israeli dispute starts in our own country, who can say where it will lead or when it will stop?

A Victim of Stereotyping

The tragedy of Mr. Odeh's murder is only heightened by the fact that the organization he represented was created to fight discrimination. Senator James Abourezk founded it because he was sickened by media distortions directed at Arabs and Arab Americans. Alex Odeh's death only lends immediacy to the case against negative stereotyping. A talented, soft-spoken man of peace, Alex Odeh last year published a volume of his poetry, Whispers in Exile. He worked unremittingly for understanding between Americans and Arabs on a personal level. On the political level he used his considerable public speaking talents to explain the Middle East to Americans, particularly the Arab-Israeli dispute that had brought him to America. It almost certainly was the exercise of his first amendment rights in this regard that cost him his life.

Alex Odeh's death prompted messages of regret from President Reagan and several members of Congress. Among the Congressmen present at a Washington Memorial service for Mr. Odeh was Nick Rahall of West Virginia who called upon his fellow Arab-Americans to "turn any anger we may feet into a tripling of our dedication to work through peaceful means and through the political process to achieve the ideas for which Alex Odeh died."

As the regional director of a small, chronically underfunded voluntary organization, Alex Odeh's salary was tiny. Friends are deeply concerned about the future of his wife, Norma, and the three little girls, Helena, Samia and Suzanna, for whom he can no longer provide. Those who share that concern are sending donations in the name of Norma Odeh to ADC national headquarters at 1731 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007.

Andrew I. Killgore, former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, retired after 32 years in the Foreign Service. He is now a political and economic consultant in Washington, D.C, and also president of the American Educational Trust.