WITH huge stakes weighing in the balance, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are following the progress of the Gulf war with intense interest. A tight, 24-hour curfew on the territories imposed by Israel at the start of the conflict has put a damper on demonstrations of solidarity with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
But as Palestinians huddle around radios for the latest news from the front, support for the man they say has given life to the cause of Palestinian independence has been hard to conceal.
``You have to be in his camp because he's asking for political solutions to all the problems in the region,'' says a prominent Gazan interviewed by telephone. ``The only thing we can do is give complete sympathy and support, not because we are convinced by Saddam, but because everyone else has betrayed us.''
Palestinians were dismayed following Iraq's failure to answer the first wave of allied air attacks earlier on Jan. 17. ``It felt like 1967'' when Israel decisively defeated Arab armies, says the Gazan, a leading Palestinian figure.
Twenty-four hours later despair turned to elation when air raid sirens sounded across Israel. After Iraqi missiles struck Tel Aviv and Haifa, spontaneous ``Saddam parties'' were held and Palestinians defiantly shouted Allahu akbar (God is great) from rooftops in villages and refugee camps.
``After the war started and the bombing of Iraq began there was complete support [for Iraq],'' says the Gazan. ``After rockets hit Israel the emotions of the people were great.''
Palestinian support for Saddam is rooted in deep frustration born of years of failure to cast off the Israeli occupation.
Hopes were excited, then dashed, when the three-year Palestinian uprising failed to weaken Israel's grip on the territories. Disappointment turned to anger when the United States failed to deliver Israel to the bargaining table after the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) played its trump card by recognizing Israel and renouncing terrorism.
Desperation increased when a wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants began pouring into Israel six months ago. With thousands expected to end up in the West Bank, Palestinians predict they will be crowded off the only Arab lands that remain.
Palestinian spokesmen date their support for Iraq to Saddam's Aug. 12 ``peace proposal'' calling for the liberation of the territories and ``arrangements for the situation in Kuwait.''
Convinced that they had a champion with the military muscle to back up his threats against Israel, Palestinians turned their loyalties to Saddam.
``The man [Saddam] is putting our question on the table; this has not been the case for years,'' explains West Bank intellectual Mahdi Abdul-Hadi.
``The problem of Palestinians is that they have not hurt America to get the right of self-determination,'' adds a West Bank-based Palestinian. ``You have to harm American interests in the region to get America's attention. That is what Saddam has offered to Palestinians.''
Even if Saddam loses or is killed, he will still be a rallying point for Palestinian aspirations, many Palestinians say.
Most outside observers say that support for Saddam, by appearing to confirm the worst fears of many Israelis, has set back the cause of Palestinian nationalism. The PLO has also alienated many Western governments jeopardizing prospects that they will push for a peace conference to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian dispute after the Gulf war. Unless Israel agrees to sit down at the bargaining table, no amount of pressure for a conference will bear fruit.
``To side wholeheartedly with Saddam ... is irreconcilable with protestations of peace,'' editorializes a Jerusalem daily - a view almost universally held in Israel.
But Palestinians insist that with all other strategies exhausted they have nothing to lose by casting their lot with Saddam.
``If the US is defeated in this war, we will get our international conference,'' says another West Bank Palestinian. ``If it wins, our position will not be different anyway.''