Cartoonist Bahaa Al Boukhari still glances over his shoulder as he leaves home every morning to drive to his office at the newspaper Al Quds in Arab East Jerusalem.

Boukhari 52, a Palestinian, is aware that he overstepped the mark when he dared to ridicule the all-powerful Palestinian police chief, Brig. Ghazi Jabbali.Jabbali, who reports directly to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, has learned to "respect" the influence of the media. He understands the power of the written word and, more recently, also has started to "appreciate" the value of political cartoons.

Last year he banned the distribution of Palestinian newspapers because they refused to publish his version of an opposition rally in Gaza.

Foreign news agencies had reported that 50,000 people attended the gathering organized by Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. Jabbali's office telephoned Palestinian editors to tell them the real figure was less than 5,000.

When his numbers were ignored in favor of the agencies' estimates, Jabbali confiscated tens of thousands of copies of the offending newspapers.

For three days no Palestinian editor dared to react. The only man to carry the flag of protest was Boukhari. His cartoon, published in Al Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper, depicts a deskbound Jabbali as a raging tyrant. The title on his desk reads "Ruler by Order of God." On a bookshelf behind him are a pair of scissors and handcuffs.

When the cartoon was brought to Jabbali's attention, he let it be known that he would retaliate at a time of his choosing.

"They said he was very upset and not to approach him," said Boukhari. "I even heard he sent people to look for me, but I don't care."

Despite the bravado, Boukhari knows he's playing with fire. Cartoons have been part of the Arab political landscape for decades, but the absence of democracy in the Arab world means that those who practise their art must walk a tightrope. Some lose their balance and have paid with their lives.

The most renowned victim was London-based Palestinian cartoonist Naji Ali, believed to have been killed on the personal orders of Arafat after he mocked the Palestine Liberation Organization chief by alluding to one of his alleged mistresses. The PLO still insists that Ali was killed by Mossad, Israel's secret service.

But Ali wasn't the first to pay the price of upholding freedom of expression. In 1973 a Palestinian publisher from East Jerusalem disappeared after the publication of a cartoon that ridiculed a pro-Israeli West Bank mayor, Sheikh Mohammed Ali Jabbari, who was depicted with his shoe in his mouth. The mayor, suspected of organizing the abduction of Al Fajr newspaper publisher Joseph Nasr, has since died, taking his secret with him to the grave.

The Nasr kidnapping more than 20 years ago so intimidated Palestinian cartoonists that many abandoned their profession. But the art of political caricatures was revived in the late 1980s when Palestinian newspapers, working under stiff Israeli military censorship, began running local and imported cartoons.

This was the start of an era that coincided with the beginning of the Palestinian intifada. The recurrent theme of every cartoon was the brutality of the Israeli occupation and the daily sufferings of Palestinians.

When Israeli jets bombed Lebanon during Operation Grapes of Wrath, Arab cartoonists fired back with anti-Semitic salvoes. Long-nosed Jewish characters were depicted as bloodthirsty human vampires trampling on the bodies of innocent children.

At the same time, the cartoonists poured scorn on the inability of their fellow Arabs to come to the rescue thousands of innocent Lebanese civilians.

Hundreds of Palestinian cartoons never saw the light of day after the Israeli censor banned them "for security reasons." Boukhari claims that at least 20 percent of his creations are still rejected.

For 16 years the American-trained Boukhari's cartoons appeared in leading Kuwaiti newspapers. But his relations with Kuwait's oil sheikhs deteriorated when he began targeting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. "When they asked me to stop drawing Sadat, I created a new character, Abu Arab, and put him in Arab dress. He could be any Arab leader."

Many Arab cartoonists have been forced to leave their countries and work from exile in the West. London and Paris are favorite alternatives to Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and other Arab capitals.

"Cartoonists are oppressed in the Arab world," explains the celebrated Lebanese cartoonist, Mahmoud Kahil. "Sometimes we have to be ambiguous to avoid the censorship and other dangers.

"No one deserves to die because of a cartoon or an article. What happened to the late Naji Ali was a catastrophe for liberty and Arab cartoonists."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)