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Palestinians Mourn Their Champion, but Israel Mixed on Saddam’s Hanging


If there was any doubt as to Saddam Hussein’s diehard hatred of Israel, it was dispelled by his declaration on the gallows: “Long live Iraq, Palestine is Arab!”

Yet while the deposed dictator’s execution over the weekend was deplored by Palestinians who long saw him as their champion, reactions in Israel were more mixed.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, perhaps wary of stoking regional suspicions that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was part of a strategy to secure the Jewish state, had little comment on the death of a man who for decades had sown terror among Israelis — whether through his Scud missile salvoes of the 1991 Gulf War or by bankrolling Palestinian suicide bombers.

“Iraqis have made their choice, and we hope for the Iraqi people that they establish a stable country for Iraq and the Middle East,” Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

The images of Saddam submitting quietly to his execution were played repeatedly over Israeli television and stirred reluctant misgivings among even seasoned old warriors.

“There is no joy to be had from a man being hanged,” said Amos Gilad, a retired army general who now serves as chief strategist in Israel’s Defense Ministry.

Nahum Barnea, the veteran Yediot Achronot pundit, wrote in a front-page article that the execution was “good riddance” for a man whose nuclear reactor was bombed by Israeli jets in 1981 and who was the target of an aborted Israeli assassination plan in 1992.

But Barnea also assayed a note of admiration: “No matter what they say about him, he went to his death in dignity, with head held high, without asking for pity, without clinging to his hangman’s feet. That last moment of satisfaction, of seeing him break down, was something he refused to give to his enemies.”

Some Israeli commentators noted that international civil liberties groups had protested at the very act of executing Saddam, saying this was unbecoming of an emerging democracy like Iraq and frustrated efforts at investigating other crimes by the ex-despot.

Unlike the United States, Israel has resorted to the death penalty only once — in the case of convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. That hanging was seen as both bringing closure to Holocaust survivors and enshrining Israel’s status as a national haven for Jews.

In Iraq, by contrast, no one expects security and calm to follow Saddam’s death. The more than two years since the dictator was captured and politically neutralized have seen only an increase in Iraqi terrorism fueled by Al-Qaida and Iran.

Ehud Yaari, Arab affairs analyst for Israel’s Channel 2 television, said that by executing Saddam, the United States and its allies may have unwittingly ushered in a new era of extreme Middle Eastern violence.

“Saddam was the last of the great pan-Arab nationalists, those who ruled through open military might and defiance,” Yaari said. “Now we are faced with the prospect of ascendant sub-national terror — for Sunni Muslims, by Al-Qaida, and for Shi’ites, through Iranian-sponsored groups like Hezbollah.”

Saddam’s execution was inopportune for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been trying to revive peace talks with Israel by curbing the Hamas Islamists with whom he shares power.

One of the great diplomatic blunders of Abbas’ late predecessor, Yasser Arafat, was to side with Saddam during the 1991 Gulf War. But given the Iraqi dictator’s heroic status among many Arabs, total silence was a risk — especially as the execution coincided with a statement issued by al-Qaida deputy chief Ayman al-Zawahiri denouncing Abbas as a “traitor” for having “sold Palestine.”

Abbas’ Fatah faction made do with issuing a statement denouncing the hanging as “absolutely illegitimate” and noting Saddam’s help for the Palestinian people.

Hamas was far more explicit.

“This crime of execution, which was carried out on the first day of Eid al-Adha, is a token of disrespect for all Islamic and Arab values,” read a statement by the group, referring to the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, which began over the weekend.

According to some religious figures in Israel, there was also a Jewish significance to the timing, close to the 10th day of the month of Tevet, the anniversary of a Holy Land invasion by the armies of Babylon — ancient Iraq — in 588 BCE, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple.

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