Space disaster divine retribution, some Palestinians say

JERUSALEM — God punished the space shuttle Columbia because its crew, which included an Israeli astronaut, was on an espionage mission against the Arab and Muslim nations, some Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip told The Jerusalem Post.

Many did not share the feelings of their leaders, such as Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat who offered his condolences to the United States over the Columbia tragedy.

Salim Najjar, a mosque preacher from a village near Jerusalem, told a group of Muslim worshippers that a "divine omnipotence" was behind the tragedy.

"This is a message from God to America and Israel that they must stop their aggression against the Arabs and Muslims," he said. "On Saturday they were reminded that God is there to protect the believers, the people of the Prophet Muhammad, God's blessing and peace be upon him."

At the Kalandya refugee camp south of Ramallah, a group of young men sitting in a small restaurant said they felt happy when they heard the news of the space shuttle explosion.

"We heard that the Israeli was a pilot in the Israeli air force who had participated in the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor," said Jamil Shehadeh, a 22-year-old mechanic. "God is great because this pilot has now been punished for the crime which he committed. I wish we will have more disasters like this in the U.S. and Israel. Who do the Americans and Israelis think they are?"

A Christian shopkeeper in the Old City of Jerusalem said he was stunned to see that many of his colleagues expressed their joy at the tragedy.

"I can't understand many of these people who say they are delighted that the space shuttle exploded," he said. "This isn't a political issue. So what if an Israeli astronaut was on board? We need to deal with this subject on a human and scientific basis. This is a tragedy to all mankind. This is what I told my neighbors this morning. But many of them, especially those who are religious, believe that this is God's punishment for the U.S. and Israel. No one here has regrets over the tragedy, and that's sad."