JERUSALEM, Oct. 8 (JTA) — Nowhere else on the planet was Osama bin Laden as popular this week as in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It took Palestinians a whole night, after the first news spread of the Anglo-American attack on Kabul, before they took to the streets in protest.
Like the rest of the world, most Palestinians spent Sunday night glued to their television screens enjoying every second “of the best show in the world,” the speech of suspected terrorist mastermind bin Laden that apparently was recorded before the attack had taken place and aired just afterward on Qatar’s al-Jazeera network.
“I swear to God that America will not live in peace until there is peace in Palestine and the army of the heathen will leave the Land of Mohammad,” bin Laden said, referring to Saudi Arabia.
He then listed honored “battle sites” where Palestinian militants have clashed with Israeli soldiers in the past year — Rafah, Ramallah and Beit Jalla.
At last, Palestinians noted with satisfaction, it would be clear to the world why it was suffering from terrorism — because of Israel.
The most quoted source in the Palestinian territories — after bin Laden — was a Newsweek public opinion poll that showed that 58 percent of Americans, too, feel that American support for Israel is in some measure responsible for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, however, said any attempt to link the Sept. 11 attack to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians was ridiculous.
“What’s he blabbering about?” Peres said of bin Laden on Israel Radio. “You don’t need any war of liberation for the Palestinians. We offered them liberation without war.”
Like the Palestinians, millions of Moslems throughout the world shared bin Laden’s analysis that this was a war between Islam and a corrupt West.
In the first 24 hours of the U.S.-led retaliation against Afghanistan, bin Laden might have expected more. Palestinian protest was limited and the intifada continued at its slow, bloody pace.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat withheld official reaction to Sunday’s air strikes on Afghanistan and forebade P.A. officials from commenting on them.
Reeling from the negative publicity when Palestinians celebrated the Sept. 11 terror attacks on America, Arafat ordered that demonstrations of support for bin Laden not be filmed. The Palestinian Authority tried to ban Monday’s protest in Gaza and, when that failed, to suppress it. Two protesters were killed in clashes with Palestinian police, and 10 policemen reportedly were injured.
Like the rest of the western world, Israelis feared possible terror retaliation for Sunday’s strikes — but then, terrorism has become part of the daily routine here.
“There is perhaps no other country in the world which is so well-prepared for terrorism like Israel,” Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said. On the eve of Simchat Torah, Ben-Eliezer urged Israelis to celebrate as they had planned, stressing that Israel is not part of the evolving war.
“There is nothing new in the fact that we are on bin Laden’s map,” Ben-Eliezer said. “I am more troubled by Jewish targets in the world. He might reach such targets as well.”
Despite Ben-Eliezer’s calming words, Israel feared a possible flare-up on various fronts — Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, Hezbollah militants on the border with Lebanon and Palestinian militants.
The fact that initial reaction was subdued did not mean that trouble would not flare up later on. It generally was assumed here that as long as the Americans did not attack targets like Iraq or Hezbollah, there was no immediate danger of a local escalation.
However, Ze’ev Schiff, military analyst for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, suggested that it was quite possible that organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah might try to open “a second front” to make life difficult for the Americans.
The Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian street were totally divided. The Palestinian cabinet met Sunday for an emergency session, but whereas Arafat is keen on remaining part of the American coalition, hatred against America currently runs deep in the Arab world in general and among Palestinians in particular.
“There is no other people that has suffered so much from terrorism like the Palestinian people,” said Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in Gaza. “America has always stood by Zionist terrorism.”
Israeli Arabs expressed similar feelings, and Israeli Arab Knesset members condemned the American-led attacks.
Knesset member Ahmed Tibi backed bin Laden’s comments, calling his use of the Palestinian issue “sophisticated and emotional” and predicting that Arab and Muslim pressure on Israel would grow as Afghani casualties mounted.
“Today they have declared war on Islam,” said Abdul Hakim Mufid, senior editor at the newspaper of the Islamic Movement in Israel. “The West has brought the calamity upon itself after hundreds of years of colonialism and imperialism.”
Initial hopes have faded that Iran, a leading supporter of world terrorism, might join President Bush’s anti- terror coalition. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, condemned the Anglo-American attack. He thus joined Iraq, which was the first Arab state to come out against the attack.
“Moderate” Arab regimes were concerned about a possible domino effect, fearing that the offensive against Afghanistan could cause instability in countries like Pakistan and Indonesia — which in turn might stir up spirits among radical Islamic elements in countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Egypt supported Sunday’s attack on condition that it be limited in scope.
Prof. Emmanuel Sivan, one of the leading experts on Islam in Israel, said recently that the attacks in New York and Washington were part of the “third wave of the activities of radical Islam.” The two previous waves were Islamic terrorism in Arab countries such as Egypt — including the murder of President Anwar Sadat 20 years ago this month — Syria, Algeria and Tunisia.
The previous waves have failed, Sivan said, but radical Islam is now engaged in a third wave — against the western world.
“I am quite sure that the West will succeed in winning this round,” Sivan said last week in an interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “But if there is something that frightens me it’s the knowledge that there will be a fourth wave, which once again will focus on the Arab countries. I am not convinced that the Arab countries will succeed in overcoming it as they have the first two waves.”