Palestinians Still Support Saddam, but Are Less Open Than in Gulf War

Mahmoud Abbas, the choice for Palestinian Authority prime minister, hardly could have been appointed at a worse time: Just when Abbas could use a little help from his American friends in establishing his clout, the Palestinian street is erupting in support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration’s worst enemy.

For several simple reasons, Palestinian support for Saddam goes back to the first Persian Gulf War 12 years ago: Saddam dares to confront the United States, which many Palestinians perceive as their enemy; Saddam is perceived as another “underdog” in the Middle East; and Saddam has been one of the main supporters of the Palestinian intifada, sending payments of $10,000 to $25,000 to the families of Palestinians killed fighting Israel, with special premiums paid for suicide bombers.

Unlike in 1991, when Arafat openly backed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and later supported him against an international — and Arab — coalition for war, Arafat this time has avoided bombastic statements of support in favor of expressions of solidarity in more subtle forums, such as greeting notes for Muslim holidays.

Yet support for Saddam cuts across Palestinian society. Thousands of demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have turned out for pro-Saddam rallies at which they burn American and Israeli flags.

Even Palestinian schoolchildren have gotten into the act, conducting mock trials of President Bush. “The Young Palestinian Parliament,” a youth group of P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party, recently conducted a mock trial in which Bush was convicted as a war criminal responsible for the murder of Palestinian and Iraqi children.

Friday prayer sermons in Palestinian mosques also use strong language: In one recent prayer sermon on official Palestinian Television, religious leader Ibrahim Madiras defined America as “the foremost enemy of the Muslim nation.”

Madiras compared Bush to ancient Egyptian pharaohs, suggesting that war against Iraq would be an imperialist war over oil, just as the war on terror is a cover for the theft of Arab oil, he said.

“The entire world is standing there saying ‘no’ to war against Iraq and ‘no’ to war against the Arab nation,” Madiras said. “Yet America is saying what Pharaoh said: ‘There is no God beside me.’ “

In an interview with JTA, Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Ziad offered a different take.

“I want to tell you unequivocally: There is no support for Saddam Hussein,” Abu Ziad said. “We support the Iraqi people, because we feel that they are victims of the situation.

“We feel that in 1991 Saddam took advantage of the Palestinian tragedy to serve his own interests,” Abu Ziad continued, “and we don’t feel that we owe him anything.”

Those Palestinians do sympathize with Saddam do so out of a shared hatred for Israel, Abu Ziad said.

But As’ad Ghanem, a political scientist at Haifa University, said most Palestinians make no distinction between Saddam and the Iraqi people — they support them all.

Palestinian commentators draw a straight line from the expected American offensive against Iraq to Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Both are perceived as part of a general Western offensive against Islam. Moreover, commentators such as Ali Abunimah, on The Electronic Intifada Web site claim that Israel will use the cover of a U.S.-led war against Iraq to carry out a mass exile of Palestinians.

“Some in Israel’s military leadership and government might see a war with Iraq, especially if it produces an Iraqi attack on Israel, as a golden opportunity to push a few hundred thousand Palestinians into neighboring countries,” he wrote.

Israeli officials dismiss such allegations as lunacy. Yet they do believe that a war with Iraq would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon; the coordinator of government affairs in the territories, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad; and Israel’s national security adviser, Ephraim Halevy, all have said that this year will be “the year of decision” in the intifada.

According to this school of thought, toppling Saddam will lead to sweeping changes in Middle East regimes. Arafat will be one of the first to go, they say, opening the way for renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

In contrast, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported recently, the Shin Bet security service believes Saddam’s fall will not have an immediate effect on the Palestinian political community.

Abu Ziad ridiculed any such speculation.

“I am sick and tired of reading the analyses of those Israeli Arabists who study the Arabs from their books,” he said.

Neither Palestinians nor Israelis stand to gain anything from war in Iraq, he said.

“If the Iraqi regime falls as a result of the war, there will be a mess which will take years to clear, very much like the situation in Yugoslavia after the death of its leader Tito,” Abu Ziad predicted. “It will be a disaster for both the region and the people.”

He suggested that instability in Iraq would affect all countries and peoples in the region — Kurds, Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Ghanem said local developments — such as moves this week to appoint Abbas as P.A. prime minister — would affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much more than war with Iraq.

“At the end of the day, it will be up to the Israeli government to decide whether it will change its policy toward the Palestinians, regardless of the outcome of the war in Iraq,” he said.

Some Palestinian leaders regard the latest escalation in Gaza — culminating with the killing last weekend of a top Hamas leader, Ibrahim Makadmeh — as “a prelude to reoccupying all of the Gaza Strip, exploiting the world’s preoccupation with the Iraqi crisis,” Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said.

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