JERUSALEM — `THE Palestinian street is with Saddam Hussein. Here is an Arab leader who has the power to match words with deeds.'' The remarks of a Palestinian journalist in East Jerusalem typify the groundswell of popular support in the Israeli-occupied territories for the Iraqi leader's invasion of Kuwait.
Even though the Gulf crisis has put the Palestinian issue on the back burner of Middle East diplomacy, many Palestinians have expressed satisfaction and even elation at the lightning Iraqi strike against its oil-rich neighbor.
Conversations with Palestinians reveal several reasons for the surge of support for Iraq:
The invasion of Kuwait, Palestinians say, has shattered the status quo of complacency in the Middle East characterized by ineffective Arab diplomacy, especially with regard to the Palestinian issue.
``People were happy that Saddam had shaken up the Arab world,'' Saeb Erakat, a political science professor at Najah University in the West Bank, told reporters.``The feeling is that Israel cannot be forced into a peace process unless it is compelled by political changes in the Arab world.''
Palestinians value Iraq's strong support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which has offices and a radio station in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein is considered a champion of the Palestinian cause and a powerful pan-Arab leader, sometimes compared to the late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Hussein's tough stance toward Israel and the West, and particularly his sharp warnings that he would retaliate with chemical weapons for an Israeli strike on Iraq or any other Arab state, has been welcomed by many Palestinians as an admirable show of Arab strength in the face of intimidations.
``What Saddam has done to Kuwait could also happen to Israel,'' an East Jerusalem Arab warned Israeli viewers in a sidewalk interview broadcast on local television.
Though some 300,000 Palestinians live and work in Kuwait and the country has contributed to the PLO, there is an undercurrent of resentment in the Israeli-occupied territories against the sheiks of the Gulf states, who are seen to have enjoyed their riches while the Palestinians and other Arabs wallow in poverty.
United States support for Kuwait and the Gulf states is another source of resentment. The US is often accused by Palestinians of pro-Israeli bias, and the Iraqi blow against US interests in the Gulf strikes a deep chord of satisfaction among Palestinians angered by Washington's Middle East policies.
East Jerusalem newspapers warned the US this week against intervening in the Gulf crisis, and accused it of escalating tensions in the area. The Al-Quds newspaper said that US military intervention ``would mean opening the gates of hell.''
Despite the gut reaction of support for Iraq, Palestinians concede that they are concerned for relatives living and working in Kuwait, and worried about the economic impact of developments in the Gulf may have on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Of the 300,000 Palestinians reported to be working in Kuwait, an estimated 30,000 are from the territories. According to unofficial assessments, they transfer some $120 million annually to about 100,000 relatives who depend on these remittances. Any cutoff or reduction of these funds could aggravate the already depressed economy in the occupied territories. A return of Palestinians who might lose their jobs would have a similar effect.
Notwithstanding these concerns, the prevailing mood among Palestinians remains supportive of the Iraqi invasion. ``Material matters are of secondary importance here,'' said the East Jerusalem journalist, who declined to be identified. ``In Iraq, we have an effective backer of the Palestinian people.''