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New York's Palestinians

Wearing an ankle-length green, woolen coat and smiling a vague smile, Abu Isa , an aging Palestinian with silver hair and bushy eyebrows wanders through the chanting crowd.

He appears more an observer than a participant on this dark, cold afternoon with the 2,000 others marching down New York City's Seventh Avenue. It is a protest for Palestinian rights. And it is a protest against Israel.

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Though Abu Isa is not chanting and his fist is not in the air, he is glad to be marching. It is his way of protesting. It is, in a sense, his duty. And the Palestinian is glad, too, for the realization that he is not alone in his support of the Palestinian fight for a homeland - even in the United States, Israel's strongest supporter.

And yet, Abu Isa is wearing sunglasses, even though the day is cloudy.

He is not the only one worried that someone might recognize him and take offense at his politics. Many of the demonstrators wear Arab headdresses, called kaffiyehs, wrapping them around their heads and covering their faces like Bedouins in a sandstorm. For Palestinian students who are Israeli citizens, and for those who live in the occupied territories, there is concern that photographs and reports of their participation in pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli activities might return to Israel before they do. Then they might be singled out by security agents at the airport when they return, or their families living in the Mideast might be harmed.

Many Palestinians living in America, where freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution, feel it smarter to keep their mouths shut and avoid a possible confrontation. This is especially true in New York City, where the metropolitan-area Jewish population of 1.8 million makes it the second-largest Jewish community after Israel.

''If any one of them opens his mouth to declare his commitment either on the job or in public, they feel that there is hostility and antagonism from other people in this town who disagree with their views,'' says Hassan Rahman, a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) diplomat in the US. ''Some of them feel they are being discriminated against; some feel they are being intimidated, that they are being harassed. Some of them don't feel secure.''

Of the estimated 100,000 Palestinians in the US, approximately 30,000 live in the New York metropolitan area. They are immigrants, students, diplomats, illegal aliens, and refugees who are building and maintaining a united community halfway around the world from their homeland. This task of keeping the Palestinians unified is being carried out in part through the circulation of literature and films by what they see as their government-in-exile, the PLO. Though the PLO is widely recognized as an umbrella organization including several guerrilla groups, PLO representatives at the United Nations insist they operate exclusively through nonviolent, diplomatic means.

Despite their acceptance of the PLO, most Palestinians living here are not the radical activists or machine-gun-toting terrorists many of their American neighbors suspect they are. They are more eager to lead relatively quiet and private lives and succeed economically than to openly battle the US government and American Jewish community. Palestinian businessmen strive to separate business from politics and leave the political statements to Arab students in US universities and PLO representatives at the UN.

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The Palestinian-Americans are more refugees, in the true sense of the word, than immigrants. They enjoy the benefits of the US economy, and they say they appreciate a system that rewards their hard work. But most believe that they can never become real Americans - that they must never become so Americanized as to forget their homeland.

This has become particularly true in recent weeks with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege and bombing of Beirut. Palestinians here are troubled that their tax dollars go in part toward aid to Israel - and that such aid helped finance the military pounding of the PLO. Some were so outraged at the Israeli invasion that they - like Palestinians in Europe and elsewhere - traveled to Lebanon to help their brothers fight. But they were only a minority. Most here, though committed to the cause, would rather not fight. They see their lives in the US as an interlude, a waiting time, in which to build a successful business and keep the family safe until they can return to a Palestinian state. Some dream of gaining enough economic influence in the US to challenge what they call the ''Jewish-Israeli lobby.''

At present, it is only a dream. The more serious challenges facing Palestinian-Americans are not in influencing the US Congress, but in being able to live their lives in America freely - without prejudice and harassment.

Palestinians in the New York City area must daily cope with the difficulties of being not only a racial minority, but also a political minority in a region they perceive as being dominated economically, socially, and politically by Jews. The difficulties range from Americans' stereotyping of all Palestinians as terrorists to the fear of most Palestinians that they are under constant surveillance by the US and Israeli governments. They fear that making their opinions known or pressing the Palestinian issue, will bring reprisals against them, their businesses, or their families.

There have been isolated acts of violence in New York City against Palestinians, which - though infrequent - tend to confirm and feed their fears.

''Sometimes you don't know who your enemy is,'' says Carlos Jbara, partner with his brother Sary in Jbara Furniture Corporation in Manhattan.

The Palestinian-owned furniture store - located adjacent to a kosher meat market and a half-block from a synagogue - was damaged Feb. 17, 1981, when a pipe bomb exploded near the front door early in the morning. The blast blew out the front windows of the store. No one was hurt.

Mr. Jbara, who hangs an 8-by-10-inch photograph of Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, with the caption ''Palestine Will Win'' outside his showroom office, said he had no idea why his store was bombed. Two days after the incident, he said, he had the following telephone conversation with someone who identified himself as a member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a New York-based extremist group that has in the past sometimes resorted to violence in its fight against anti-Semitism:

''You don't know why your store was attacked twice this week?'' the caller asked him. ''We're responsible, and you have to be nice because you don't like the Jew.''

He answered: ''Who says I don't like the Jew? I've been here seven years and I never attacked, or bothered, or insulted any Jews.''

Then the line went dead, he said.

The JDL, formed in New York in 1968 to protest Soviet treatment of Jews, trains its members in karate and the use of weapons to defend themselves against anti-Semitism. The group, which has been rejected and condemned by mainstream Jewish organizations, has targeted Russians, Arabs, and members of the Black Panther organization for its demonstrations and harassment.

New York City detectives said that the bomb that exploded outside Mr. Jbara's store, a pipe filled with explosive powder and capped at both ends, was relatively small and easy to plant. There were no arrests.

A few days before the bombing, Jbara said someone moved a pile of rubbish next to the front window of his store and set it on fire. The window shattered because of the heat, he said, but there was no other significant damage. Jbara had just replaced the window when his store was bombed.

The store owner added that two months before someone had written in large letters with red spray paint on the sidewalk in front of his store: ''PLO are murderers,'' ''PLO own the store,'' ''PLO must leave the US and New York,'' and ''PLO EQUALS (a swastika).''

In another incident on April 5 this year, a Lebanese restaurant in Brooklyn and apartments above it were destroyed by an arsonist. An elderly woman was killed in the blaze.

Moments after the first fire alarm sounded at 1:58 a.m., an anonymous caller claiming he was with the JDL contacted the media and said the organization set the fire, because ''the Tripoli restaurant was the undercover headquarters in New York City of the Palestine Liberation Army.''

A JDL spokesman denied the group was involved.

The police said they had no information linking the restaurant with the PLO.

While the Jbara incidents and the Brooklyn fire are not typical of the experience of the majority of Palestinians here, the bombing, fire, and vandalism do have a larger impact on the Palestinian community. Word of the bombing and other acts travels quickly through the closed community in Palestinian coffee shops on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, contributing to a wider fear that there may be further attacks.

The Palestinians in New York live a somewhat modified version of life in the Middle East. Many cling to the conservative ways and traditions of the ''old country,'' rejecting much of the American way of life. Palestinian fathers say they don't want their daughters growing up in designer jeans, drinking beer, and showing no respect for their elders. In fact, some Palestinian fathers - true to the rules of the old country - will not even permit a daughter to date unless she is formally engaged to the young man.

''You'd rather be dead than see your daughter go out with a guy. It's worse than a crime,'' said Ahmad Widdi, a Brooklyn resident.

''We believe in that deeply. (Palestinian women) don't look for good times, going to discos and all that. They look to their husbands, their families, and their homes,'' he said.

It is a difficult standard to maintain, particularly in the New York City environment, and it has led to strains between young and old.

Many families have sent their daughters back to the Middle East when they reached age 12 or 13 to ensure that they were not ''corrupted'' by American society.

If there is one area in which the Palestinians do not fear their children will be corrupted it is regarding Israel and Palestinian rights. This is like a religion to them - taught to the children even before they are old enough to fully understand. As such, they develop a fairly sophisticated, but one-sided, understanding of the political situation in the Middle East at about the time their American counterparts are learning how to catch a baseball.

Although Palestinians are scattered throughout New York, the heart of the Palestinian community is the Atlantic Avenue area of Brooklyn. This is known as the Arab quarter for its Lebanese and Yemeni restaurants and Arab markets. Palestinians - businessmen, laborers, students, salesmen, seamen, and merchants - travel from all sections of the city evenings after work to drink Turkish coffee and sweet mint tea in the Arab cafes near Atlantic Avenue. They come to talk, argue, play cards, discuss politics, and, most important, to hear any news about family or friends in the Mideast.

It is a refuge - a tiny piece of Jerusalem or Hebron or Ramallah transplanted into Brooklyn. It is a place where a new immigrant can feel at home and where a group of American citizens can become Arabs again, talking freely and passionately in Arabic about whatever they want.

Abu Isa sits at a table near the entrance of Brooklyn's largest Palestinian cafe, dipping pita bread into a bowl of brown beans. He doesn't use a fork, rather he shapes the thin, flat bread in his fingers and scoops and squeezes the beans, eating as Arabs eat in the Middle East. He uses only his right hand. An Egyptian romance blares out in Arabic from the TV screen across the near-empty room.

A visitor enters - a stranger to the third-floor cafe. He asks questions about the Palestinians.

The old man tells the stranger he cannot answer his questions. There are others, official people in Manhattan, who will, he says. He returns to his beans.

Someone else asks, ''Are you Jewish?''

The answer, ''No,'' elicits no visible response. It is a question frequently asked of strangers.

Later, more than three hours after the visitor entered the cafe, Abu Isa crosses the room and sits down. He is ready to talk. He looks more Italian than Palestinian, this short man in a turtle-neck with slicked-back hair and big, searching eyes.

''The Jewish in America, you don't know if he is Jewish until you ask,'' he says. He seems nervous, anxious, but he keeps talking. This is a conversation he would not have with just anyone in New York City.

''My people, they do not kill children,'' he says, ''We are peaceful people, quiet people, but where is our country, Palestine? We did not sell it to the Jewish.

''I was there in 1948 when the Jewish came to Deir Yasin. You know who the leader was, it was Menachem Begin,'' he says. ''They killed the women, they killed the children.

''Everybody, he thinks about danger in that country with the Jewish,'' says Abu Isa. (His name in Arabic means ''father of Jesus.'')

He leans over. He lowers his voice: ''Everything that happens here, Israel, she knows. Everything. Everything. Everything.''

He adds, ''Palestine, 20 governments, they came and left and the Jewish stay now 32 years, and they are going to leave.'' He searches his vocabulary, and finally says, ''They came, and we were the people. Israel came by the army and by the planes - we are still Palestinian people.''

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