Palestinian rioters hail bin Laden

Yasser Arafat's security forces used tear gas, batons and bullets, but they couldn't stop students from welcoming the Saudi terrorist's support.

By Flore de Preneuf

Published October 8, 2001 6:29PM (EDT)

Osama bin Laden said it on Al Jazeera TV Sunday night: There will be no peace for America until there is peace in Palestine.

This was music to the ears of thousands of disgruntled Palestinians, desperate for a savior.

"They were excellent remarks and reflected the attitudes of the Palestinian people," said Ahmed, a 24-year-old pharmacology student at al-Najjah University in Nablus, a town in the northern hills of the West Bank. He refused to provide his last name.

But bin Laden's words were certainly not welcomed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Eager to avoid the mistakes of 1991, when Palestinians embraced Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as their hero instead of siding with the more powerful coalition led by Americans in the Gulf War, Arafat made sure that Palestinian policemen were out in force on Monday to repress demonstrations of support for bin Laden and prevent cameramen and journalists from reporting the possibly embarrassing street events.

But Arafat's men couldn't stop hundreds of students from Gaza's Islamic University from flowing out of the campus gates and marching down the streets of Gaza, holding portraits of bin Laden and chanting his name. The students, who had no permit to demonstrate, pushed their way through rows of police. In the heavy fighting that ensued, Arafat's security forces used tear gas, batons and bullets to control the students as they began hurling stones and insults at the police. The offices of Palestinian Airlines -- the symbol of Arafat's fledgling authority and international prestige -- were gutted and torched by rioters.

Hours after the initial demonstration, fighting was still going on. At least three Palestinians were killed and scores were injured. It was the worst rioting since a showdown between the Palestinian Authority's security forces and the Islamic militant group Hamas outside a Gaza mosque in 1994.

"I suspect the matter will be contained," said Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian lawmaker in Gaza interviewed by phone. "It will leave a lot of bad feelings and tensions but I think no one is interested in having it spread and escalate. The Palestinian Authority is keen on maintaining a certain image of itself and they don't like the fact that some people were raising pictures of bin Laden."

Since Sept. 11, Arafat has tried hard to dissociate himself from terror, whether global or local. He was quick to condemn the attacks on New York and Washington, donated blood for the victims in a show of solidarity for the American people and has vowed to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel by arresting Islamic militants. "The idea is to preserve the Palestinians and this is the policy Arafat is pursuing," explained Abu Amr. "It's important not to take the wrong side and not to give Sharon a pretext to destroy us. We need to make our struggle distinct from what happens in New York and Washington."

Israel, however, has not been impressed with the pace of the arrests carried out by the Palestinian Authority. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly compared Arafat to bin Laden, and last Thursday Sharon said it was foolish to distinguish Palestinian actions against Israel from other forms of terrorism: "There is no 'good terrorism' and 'bad terrorism.'"

But then Sharon went too far. Using a comparison that riled the American administration, Sharon warned the United States not to repeat the mistake of 1938, when European democracies tried to satisfy Adolph Hitler's appetite for expansion by granting Nazi Germany part of Czechoslovakia : "Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism." The Bush administration admonished Sharon, and he offered a half-hearted apology over the weekend.

Palestinian officials are hoping to capitalize on Sharon's stumble and keep the lid on anti-American demonstrations in the wake of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, a fellow Muslim country. But pro-bin Laden sentiments, even among those who did not dare demonstrate, were running high on Monday and seemed difficult to suppress.

Although Arab leaders have paid lip service to the Palestinian cause for decades without doing much to back their rhetoric, bin Laden's words seemed calculated to respond to Palestinian longings.

In his widely broadcast speech, bin Laden, the terrorist ring leader who has styled himself as the Robin Hood of the Muslim world, lavished attention on the Palestinians, naming small West Bank towns and friction points in Gaza by name. "In these days, Israeli tanks infest Palestine -- in Jenin, Ramallah, Rafah, Beit Jalla, and other places in the land of Islam, and we don't hear anyone raising his voice or moving a limb," he said. And he finished his speech with a morale-lifting promise: "I swear by God, who has elevated the skies without pillars, neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine."

"I wouldn't exaggerate the importance of his statement" in provoking demonstrations in Gaza, said Abu Amr. "You're talking about an already mobilized population that's always complained about America's double standards."

But demonstrators in Nablus said bin Laden's support heartened them. "Arafat is very wrong if he doesn't support someone who supports the Palestinians," said Ahmed, the pharmacology student who wouldn't give his last name.

For him, Arafat's realpolitik made no sense. "What has America done for us since 1948?" he asked. "Possession of power doesn't necessarily translate into help for us." On the contrary Ahmed saw good reasons to be mad at the United States. He and his friends, sitting in the shade outside the university's tall white gates, were mourning a former classmate, a 23-year-old volunteer medic, who was reportedly killed by Israeli soldiers shooting from an American-supplied Apache helicopter in Hebron on Saturday.

Qusai, a 22-year-old art student who wandered by the group of mourners, granted that bin Laden would probably not be able to help the Palestinians in their struggle for national rights, "but at least he talked about it," he said. "Bin Laden's comments scare the Israelis, so they're useful to us." By contrast, President Bush's endorsement of the idea of a Palestinian state last week made no impression on him: "It came too late," he said, "only after the attacks of September."

Certainly not all Palestinians are of one mind and heart. Even at al-Najjah University, a campus that gained international notoriety two weeks ago when students organized an "art exhibit" that celebrated and recreated in gory detail the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizzeria on Aug. 9, a few anti-bin Laden voices could be heard. "Bin Laden only represents himself," said Ala'adin Arwazi, an 18-year-old computer student with a goatee. "He bombed offices, not military bases, and killed civilians -- this is not what Palestinian people want. He did not consult with us."

Yazmin Sawafta, an 18-year-old engineering student who does not veil her long black locks, thought it was wrong to support bin Laden if his responsibility in the Sept. 11 attacks is proven. "We do not welcome such a friend," she said. "Bin Laden is right and wrong: He's right in saying that Palestinians have rights but wrong in carrying out attacks. On the other hand, American policy is wrong ..." Sawafta, who said she often argues with friends about bin Laden, was concerned above all by the global implications of the war: "I'm afraid that it will become a religious war."

If that happens, bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban could blow away the moral dilemmas troubling Sawafta and make Arafat's positive attitude toward the United States untenable.

"America won't become the friend of the Arab world because of a statement or certain positions by the U.S. administration," said Abu Amr. "For simple people, Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, America is in a war against a Muslim country and all other considerations by Arafat or others become irrelevant."

Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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