Iraq conflict puts Palestinians at a delicate crossroads

JERUSALEM — Hardly a day passed since the outbreak of the new Gulf War before the Palestinians had their first war hero.

Ahmad Baz, 33, a bus driver from the West Bank city of Jenin, reportedly was hit March 20 by an American missile just as he was about to cross the border with his bus from Iraq into Jordan.

Mourners who gathered over the weekend at the family's mourning tent noted how symbolic it was that a Palestinian should be one of the first casualties of the war: Of all Arab peoples, the Palestinians are probably the closest supporters of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Thousands have poured into the streets just as in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, chanting the familiar slogans "Darling Saddam, send your rockets to Tel Aviv."

Saddam has been among the most generous underwriters of the intifada, dispersing payments of $10,000 to $25,000 to the families of those killed fighting Israel. Special premiums are paid to the families of suicide bombers.

In addition, Palestinians value his willingness to stand up to the United States, which is seen here as the patron of Israel.

The war finds the Palestinians at a delicate crossroads, and they are rather confused. The man in the street hates the United States for its support of Israel. However, the recent appointment of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, following heavy pressure on President Yasser Arafat from the countries that drafted the "road map" toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, shows the Palestinians' dependence on U.S. good will.

Indeed, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed President Bush in mid-March to commit to implementing the road map, while French President Jacques Chirac proposed a French initiative for a post-war conference on the Middle East to discuss that implementation.

Even though they know the road map's path to an independent state is long and bumpy, Palestinians realize it is the only formula now on the table for an independent state.

Many Palestinians hope the American attempt to reconstruct Iraq after the war ends up as a nasty, failed entanglement. That might weaken U.S. standing in the world, while strengthening those players — the United Nations, Europe and Russia — that opposed the war and are seen as more sympathetic to Palestinian interests in the road map.

On the other hand, as the Israeli daily Ha'aretz notes, a successful war could result in the weakening of the United Nations and Europe.

Last Friday, Jerusalem police had to disperse by force a demonstration of Palestinians coming out of weekly prayers on the Temple Mount.

The protesters chanted slogans against Israel, the United States and Arab countries, accusing the latter of standing idle in the face of an attack against another Arab nation.

Protesters burned Israeli and American flags and raised Iraqi flags instead, as well as Saddam posters — along with posters of yet another Arab hero, Osama bin Laden.

The demonstrations carried a clear message: The war in Iraq and the ongoing confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians are part and parcel of the same Western offensive against the Arabs.

That line was stressed by Abdul Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip.

Some members of Hamas and Arafat's Fatah movement have called for suicide bombers to attack American targets.

But Rantisi said Hamas would not attack American citizens "because we limit our fight to the Palestinian arena and the struggle against the Zionist enemy."

But Hamas declared Monday to be a day of fasting in support of Saddam.

In contrast, the Palestinian Authority has maintained a low profile since war broke out. Palestinian police did not try to disrupt the pro-Saddam demonstrations, as they did the pro-bin Laden demonstrations after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But Palestinian officials refrained from making strong anti-American statements.

By contrast, the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade called for attacks on U.S., British and Israeli targets around the world because of the war in Iraq.

The group, which is affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party, said the three countries are attempting to take control of Arab and Muslim resources through "terror and massacres." Palestinian officials said the statement does not reflect official Fatah policy.

They realize that if they hope to gain anything from the war, it will be thanks to American and European efforts to appease the Arab world by pushing toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Bush's road-map speech on the eve of war elicited positive reactions from influential leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, and even the Central Committee of the PLO.

But Palestinian leaders — including those within the Palestinian Authority — are at odds regarding the plan, which was drafted by the diplomatic "Quartet" of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.

The PLO's Central Committee issued a statement expressing gratitude to Bush for "his special vision regarding the solution which would lead to the establishment of an independent and democratic Palestinian state."

But the statement added that the road map should not be opened to amendments — as Bush hinted and as the Israelis would like — but should be implemented immediately as is.

That, at least, was the view of Palestinian figures such as Arafat adviser Nabil Abu-Rudeineh; Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian minister for municipal affairs; and Ahmed Karia, chairman of the Palestinian legislative council.

Desperate for a way to climb down from the tree of the intifada without surrendering or losing face, the Palestinian leadership is backing the road map because of its call for an end to the negotiations by 2005, with the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian position is that it is necessary to set a precise timeline for implementation of the plan as is, and not to be drawn into endless procrastination caused bu changes and corrections as demanded by the Israeli government.

However, other senior Palestinian officials such as Nabil Sha'ath, minister of planning and international cooperation, expressed disappointment with Bush's speech, describing it as a hollow attempt to address international anti-American sentiment.

Hassan Kashef, director-general of the Palestinian Authority's Information Ministry, wrote in the Palestinian daily al-Hayat al-Jadida that Bush did not deserve any thanks.

"The Arabs will not allow Bush's upcoming war against Iraq just because he promised to publicize the road map," Kashef wrote. "The facts are that the [war] will only serve Israel.''

Indeed, Israelis generally regard Saddam's overthrow as a positive development that could contribute to regional stability.

The difference in attitudes toward the war was best seen in Jerusalem. In the western part of the capital, people were walking the streets, carrying their gas masks, cheering the reported progress of coalition forces in Iraq and debating the credibility of reports that Saddam was hurt.

Just a few streets away, Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem were demonstrating in favor of Saddam, weren't carrying masks and were expressing confidence that even if Saddam could, he wouldn't touch the holy city of Jerusalem.

Arab residents did store up food, medicine, gas supplies and water. Unlike the Israelis, however, they did so not for fear of a possible Scud missile attack, but rather for fear that Israel would use the war to take security measures that impose further hardship on them.