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News Analysis: Palestinians Cheer Saddam As if Not a Thing Has Changed

It could have been a scene from the streets of Baghdad.

Instead, it was the West Bank towns of Jenin and Ramallah — and the Gaza Strip — where hundreds of demonstrators lined the streets, waving Iraqi flags, holding posters featuring Saddam Hussein and chanting slogans in support of the Iraqi leader.

“Saddam, Saddam, ya habib (Saddam darling), hit, hit Tel Aviv,” they chanted.

Once again, the Palestinians were spearheading Arab support for Saddam Hussein. Seven years ago, on the eve of the Gulf War, Palestinians burned flags of Israel and the United States. Then, the target of Palestinian rage was President Bush — now it is President Clinton.

“Clinton, Clinton, you coward,” chanted demonstrators in Ramallah, “go look for your women.”

In Ramallah, scores of demonstrators threw stones at Israeli soldiers on the border between the Palestinian-and Israeli-controlled areas. Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets, wounding one Palestinian in the leg.

It was as if nothing has changed — as if the United States is not the main sponsor of the Oslo peace process.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat tried to appear neutral. He met Monday with the president of the European Union’s executive body, Jacques Santer, and called for a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi conflict.

On the ground, however, it was different. Arafat’s Fatah group organized most of the demonstrations. And the move only increased tensions with Israel.

“The rallies are a way for Palestinians to let out their frustrations over the deadlock in the Mideast peace process,” said Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Fatah in the West Bank.

As fear swelled among Israelis that Iraq would repeat the Scud attacks of 1991, Saddam was perceived by some Palestinians as the only Arab leader who can do something to belittle the Israelis.

Thus it was the relatively distant issue of Saddam Hussein, not the stalled peace process, that brought the Palestinians to the street, indicating that the Palestinians are not ready to spark a crisis over the peace process.

The Palestinian leadership sponsored the rallies in an attempt to allow the Palestinian people to deflect their rage from the peace process. But if demonstrations in support of Saddam were thought to be more controllable, this turned out not to be the case.

In addition to the violence in Jenin, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets at Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Fourteen people were wounded, including three Palestinian police officers and three journalists.

In response, the Palestinian police Tuesday banned any demonstrations that violate the Oslo peace accords, including pro-Iraqi rallies.

The Americans wouldn’t need to worry about Palestinian support for Saddam, except for the fact that it reflects a general mood in the Arab world. Major partners in the Gulf War coalition — the Syrians and the Egyptians, for example — are publicly criticizing the possible use of force against Iraq.

A close ally like King Hussein of Jordan — who supported Saddam during the Gulf War — met Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, in London this week and told him that he would not support a strike against Iraq.

Even Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally during the Gulf War, told the U.S. ???ecretary of defense, William Cohen, that it would not allow American planes to take off from Saudi soil.

In Cairo, the secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, Esmat Abdul Megid, tried to defuse the crisis by proposing the creation of a special, new team to inspect Saddam’s palaces.

“The Palestinian people, like all Arab peoples, oppose any American aggression against Iraq,” said Arab Knesset Member Azmi Bishara of Hadash. “But this does not mean that someone has an ideological political plan in support of Saddam Hussein.”

Some Palestinian activists, such as Fathi Abu-Jab of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, tried to downplay the significance of the pro-Saddam demonstrations.

“Support for Saddam Hussein in the Palestinian street is very limited,” said Abu-Jab. “Likewise, the Palestinian Authority has no interest to support the Saddam Hussein regime.”

Abu-Jab suggested that the Palestinian rage is directed as what they see as a double standard — the Americans say they intend to punish the Iraqi people because of Saddam’s failure to respect U.N. resolutions, but they do nothing against a perceived failure on the part of the Israeli government to stand by its obligations.

Last weekend’s Cabinet session of the Palestinian Authority was mostly devoted to the Iraqi crisis. Arafat sent Minister Azzam al-Ahmad, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s former ambassador to Iraq, to Baghdad to convey two messages to Saddam: the sympathy of the Palestinian people and the hope that the conflict would be resolved peacefully.

For their part, Israeli Arabs living in Israel proper kept a low profile over the issue. Some representatives of the Bedouin population, however, made some alarming remarks. “The Bedouin have eaten straw for 50 years,” said Khalil al- Baz, spokesman of the Bedouin municipality of Tel-Sheva in the Negev. “It would not hurt the Israelis to eat a little straw,” he said.

And hundreds of Druse living in the Golan Heights marched in support of the Iraqi leader. Unlike the Palestinians, the Druse did not burn Israeli or American flags.

As it did seven years ago, the Palestinian stand on the Iraqi issue increased tensions with the Israelis. Israel’s defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, said this week that most of the Arab countries did not agree with Saddam’s way.

“The Palestinians would do best if they choose another way — and other models,” he said.

But many Palestinians appear to be confident that whether America launches air strikes or not, Saddam Hussein will be the winner.

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