Apr. 9, 2003

There was shock and disbelief in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Wednesday as Palestinians gathered around TV sets to watch US Marines and Iraqi residents knock down a giant statute of Saddam Hussein in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad.

"I'm stunned and appalled. I can't understand what is happening," said Rustum Abu Ghazalah, a 30-year-old shopkeeper in the center of Ramallah.

He and grim-faced fellow shopkeepers zapped from one Arab TV station to another with the hope of discovering that what they were hearing and watching was nothing more than a US-produced Hollywood film.

"This can't be true," grumbled Abu Ghazaleh. "Where are the suicide bombers? Where are the Fedayeen of Saddam? Where are the heroic Republican Guards?"

Some Palestinian officials, however, expressed relief that the war was in its final stages now that Saddam's regime has collapsed. They said they hoped that now the US and the rest of the world would pay more attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We hope that Washington will now have time to solve our problems here," one official told The Jerusalem Post . "Let's hope that the US will now implement the road map plan for peace in the Middle East and force Israel to stop its aggression on our people."

Since the beginning of the war, many Palestinians have been staging daily demonstrations in support of Saddam. The protests have often turned into anti-American and anti-British rallies where Palestinians burned effigies of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

At least two Palestinian groups, Fatah and Islamic Jihad, announced that they had dispatched suicide bombers to Iraq to join in the fight against the US and British troops. Hundreds of Palestinian volunteers from Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank and Gaza Strip are reported to have arrived in Iraq to participate in the fighting.

"This is a sad day for all the Arabs and Muslims, particularly the
Palestinians," said Nael al-Am, a 36-year-old grocery owner in Ramallah. He is one of the few merchants who still keep a large-size poster of the deposed Iraqi president. Friends describe him as a staunch supporter of Saddam.

"I invested a lot of money in buying a satellite dish and a new TV set because I wanted to watch the day the battle for Baghdad begins," explained the bearded shopkeeper. "I was sure that this was going to be one of the great battles of the century, where an Arab army would inflict heavy losses on the invading crusaders. I feel as if a dagger has been stuck in my heart when I see American soldiers strolling in the heart of Baghdad."

Salim Jaber, a taxi driver from the nearby town of Beitunia, said he decided to call it a day when he heard on radio the news from Baghdad. "I just couldn't continue driving," he said. "It was very difficult for me and the passengers. I've never seen such solemn faces. It was as if they had lost dear ones."

Many Palestinians said Saddam was the only Arab leader who sided with them both morally and financially in their confrontation with Israel. "He gave us a sense of pride because he was the only Arab leader who stood up against Israel and the US," said Abdel Majiud al-Bahs, a 46-year-old engineer. "Now that Saddam is gone, the Palestinians feel like orphans. We have lost an important ally. He was even more popular than Yasser Arafat."

Since the beginning of the intifada more than two years ago, Saddam has paid about 30 million dollars to families of Palestinian victims of the violence, including suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Israel. The money was channeled through the pro-Iraqi Arab Liberation Front, a tiny Palestinian faction operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The last time Saddam's representative handed out checks to Palestinians was last week.

Some Palestinians chose to vent their anger on the Arab media, especially al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi and al-Arabiya TV stations, for broadcasting lies about the developments on the battlefield. "For the past three weeks these stations gave us the impression that Iraq had the upper hand in the fighting against the US and British forces," complained Yahya al-Natsheh, the owner of a boutique in al-Bireh, the twin city of Ramallah.

"Where is the liar [Iraqi information minister Mohammed] Sahhaf," he asked rhetorically. "He sounded and looked so confidant when he told us that the Iraqis were slaughtering the crusaders and mercenaries at the gates of Baghdad. Everyone believed that the Iraqis were cleverly luring the Americans and British into Baghdad, which was supposed into a huge graveyard for the crusaders."

Older Palestinians said the events in Iraq are reminiscent of the Six Day War, when Arab radio stations and leaders told their audiences that Israel was on the verge of defeat. They said the TV appearances of the Iraqi information minister, who remained defiant till the last minute, insisting that everything was under control and that the enemy had been defeated.

"Sahhaf reminded me of [Egyptian radio propagandist] Ahmed Said, who during the 1967 war, told us that the Israeli warplanes were falling like flies," said Abed al-Zamel, a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher from Silwad village near Ramallah. "Once again the Arabs have fallen victim to the lies of their leaders and media. We never learn from our mistakes. When the war erupted, I warned my sons not to watch Arab TV stations so they would not be disappointed and depressed when the truth eventually comes out."

This article can also be read at the Jerusalem Post

Naomi Ragen
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