New prime ministers clout imperiled Palestinians cheering Saddam again

JERUSALEM — Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's new prime minister, could not have been appointed at a worse time:

Just when Abbas could use a little help from his American friends in establishing his clout, fellow Palestinians are taking to the streets in support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration's worst enemy.

For several reasons, Palestinian support for Saddam goes back 12 years ago to the Persian Gulf War. That's when Saddam — whom Palestinians view as a fellow "underdog" in the Middle East — dared to confront the United States.

Also, 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.

However, unlike in 1991, when Yasser Arafat openly backed Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and later supported him against an international (and Arab) coalition for war, Arafat this time has toned it down. He has avoided bombastic statements of support in favor of expressions of solidarity in more subtle forums, such as greeting notes for Muslim holidays.

Still, 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 Palestinian Authority 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.

Strong language has also been used during Friday prayer sermons in some Palestinian mosques. 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.

"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.' "

On the other hand, Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Ziad offered a different take. "I want to tell you unequivocally: There is no support for Saddam Hussein. 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, and we don't feel that we owe him anything."

Those Palestinians supporting 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 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.

Some speculate that toppling Saddam will lead to sweeping changes in Mideast regimes — that Arafat will be one of the first to go, opening the way for renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

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

Abu Ziad has a different opinion, saying neither Palestinians nor Israelis stand to gain anything from war in Iraq.

"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," he said.

"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.

Haifa University's Ghanem said local developments, such as the appointment of Abbas as the Palestinian Authority's first prime minister, would impact 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.