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Attack puts Arab leaders on the spot

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JERUSALEM, Sept. 12 (JTA) — Never before have so many Arab and Muslim leaders condemned a terrorist attack so swiftly and so strongly.

But the official denunciations were drowned out by the din of anti- American euphoria in the streets of several of their countries.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was among the first to denounce the terrorist assaults Tuesday on the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center — even offering Palestinian help in tracking down the perpetrators.

To underline the point that it was not business as usual, Arafat postponed a long-awaited visit to Syria, which remains on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism.

Arafat’s comments came in sharp contrast to his own people’s jubilation as news of the catastrophe reached the Palestinian street.

In the West Bank, thousands of Palestinian men, women and children took to the streets of Ramallah and the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. They sang, danced and handed out sweets as if their dreams had come true.

In Nablus, armed Palestinians reportedly trapped foreign photojournalists inside a hotel to prevent them from covering the festivities. At least one photographer who managed to film the celebrations said he was told his life would be in danger if the pictures were published.

However, the revelry spread to eastern Jerusalem, and Arab television networks rushed to deliver the pictures to the entire Arab world.

Similar scenes occurred in the streets of Baghdad. Iraqi leaders remained silent, but Iraqi TV played a patriotic song with the words “down with America” as it showed the World Trade Center towers falling.

The country’s state-controlled media said the “American cowboy” deserved the attacks for its “crimes against humanity.”

In the face of such scenes, Arafat could only engage in damage control, knowing that the free world would show very little understanding for Palestinian support of terrorism.

On Wednesday, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi denied that the Palestinian celebrations had been in response to the terror attacks in New York and Washington, describing such reports as “misleading.”

“We feel your pain, we feel your sorrow. We will do everything we can to help,” she was quoted as saying.

Speaking on CNN, King Abdullah of Jordan called the celebrations isolated events, saying, “it’s no way a reflection of the Palestinian people or other peoples of the Middle East.”

But the joy on the street reflected the depth of Arab and Muslim animosity toward the United States that has been building since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada a year ago. That antipathy reached a peak earlier this month at the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, especially after the United States and Israel walked out together.

Israelis drew parallels between Tuesday’s street celebrations and the way Palestinians “danced on the roofs” during the Gulf War.

In 1991, however, they were rejoicing over Iraqi missile attacks against Israel, while this time they ridiculed the tragedy of the most powerful country in the world — one that has invested tremendous efforts over the past decade to stand as an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians.

When the United States vowed Tuesday night, in President Bush’s words, to punish those responsible for the attacks as well as those who harbor them, trembles of fear could be felt throughout the Middle East from Afghanistan to Sudan.

Even such longtime enemies of the United States as Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi made a point of condemning the terror attacks. The same man who recently said U.S. military power was increasingly helpless in the face of a new kind of “rebellious challenge” this week offered condolences and humanitarian aid to the United States.

In Iran, President Mohammad Khatami said he felt “deep regret and sympathy with the victims.”

In the Gaza Strip, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, leader of the fundamentalist Hamas movement — responsible for numerous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians — said his organization has no interest in “moving our struggle outside the occupied Palestinian land.”

Perhaps in response, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi urged “leaders of the Arab world who are condemning this terrible tragedy” to persuade Muslim clerics to “immediately cancel the definition of a suicide bomber as a martyr and forbid all large-scale attacks.”

“Whoever calls a suicide bomber a martyr is an accessory to the horrible crime,” Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron said.

His suggestion highlighted the balancing act Arab leaders face as they confront a free world that is outraged over the U.S. tragedy.

Even a veteran political acrobat like Yasser Arafat will find it almost impossible to disassociate himself from the radical terrorist elements behind this week’s attacks while at the same time backing a war of terror against Israel.

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