As though Yasser Arafat didn't have enough problems. Like a onetime friend from a past you'd rather forget, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has reappeared on the Palestinian political scene to make PLO Chairman Arafat's life just a little more complicated.
Pro-Iraqi demonstrations continued yesterday despite Mr. Arafat's ban on them, confounding the official Palestinian position of neutrality in the United States standoff with Saddam Hussein over his refusal to allow United Nations weapons inspectors unfettered access to suspected weapons sites. Scrambling to quell the unrest, Arafat closed down a Palestinian television station that had been critical of American policy in the area and arrested one of the protest leaders from a refugee camp on this West Bank city's outskirts.
'Saddam, oh friend'
The outpouring of popular Palestinian support for Saddam hurts Arafat at home and abroad. It also damages long-term prospects for Middle East peace by dragging Israeli-Palestinian relations back to a vitriolic point that optimistic politicians had once declared the stuff of history's dustbin. It does not just make Palestinians seem extreme in the eyes of Americans and other countries lending financial support to Arafat's fledgling government.
It also reinforces Israeli feelings of insecurity and allows hard-liners to capitalize on that sentiment by warning the public against being conciliatory to hostile neighbors.
Here in Bethlehem, students carried a giant Iraqi banner high over their heads, burned American and Israeli flags, and tried to charge past Palestinian police in order to stone Israeli soldiers nearby. But protesters say their hearts are really with the Iraqi people, not its leader.
"If America attacks Saddam, who will be destroyed? Not him, but the Iraqi people," says Ala al-Azzeh, a university chemistry student. "I don't really support Saddam. I support Iraq as a people, as a part of our Arab civilization - and as a statement against the Americans as an imperialist nation."
Such expressions of resentment toward America's role in the region are common.
But the Palestinian explanation that their sympathy is for the Iraqi people's plight rings hollow with Israelis whose evening news footage is filled with Palestinians chanting: "Oh Saddam, oh friend, hit Tel Aviv. Saddam, use chemical weapons."
Palestinians remember Saddam as the man who championed their cause during the Gulf War, and they cheered from rooftops as he lobbed 39 Scud missiles at Israel. Many here applaud him as a kind of folk hero who manages to thumb his nose at the West and survive. Lately, posters of the Iraqi ruler have been selling more quickly than those of Arafat.
Savvy Palestinians recognize the contradictions. They condemn Arafat's ban on the protests, and his recent clampdown on the media with a new dictate to refrain from commenting on Iraq. But they know that life would be much less free under an autocrat like Saddam. Says Mr. Al-Azzeh: "If you are drowning, you'll grab onto anything to prevent yourself from going under, and we are drowning."
Indeed, faith in the peace process has hit the lowest point since the Oslo accords were reached in September 1993, with no real progress in more than a year.
Frustration with US
Palestinians, already frustrated that the US has not put more pressure on right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement the accords and stop expanding Jewish settlements in occupied territories, are looking for ways to vent their anger.
"There is huge frustration among the Palestinian people with the American government as far as the peace process is concerned," says Manel Hassassian, dean of political studies at Bethlehem University.
"They see procrastination on one side in dealing with the Israelis, and the consistency of trying to enforce UN resolutions on Iraq. This is considered by Palestinians to be a double-standard policy," he adds.
Fodder for Israeli hawks
But as Israelis trudge off to gas mask distribution centers and line up for rolls of plastic sheeting to seal their rooms in case of a chemical attack, feelings of vulnerability are useful to hard-liners who want to remind the public of two key facets of their agenda: Israel is still in danger from its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians are still not ready for peace - and undeserving of more land.
The demonstrations are "very disturbing, because we'd like to see a real change of heart in the Palestinian people as part of the move toward peace," Mr. Netanyahu says. "We want to see the dismantling of the psychological infrastructure of warfare, so that the Palestinian public accept the right of the state of Israel to exist."
Arafat knows that the protests are fodder in the war chests of hard-line Israelis. And he knows that the pro-Iraqi sentiment can't possibly help his cause in the US, the one country that holds some hope of prodding the parties back onto the road to peace.
"Arafat is banning the demonstrations because he doesn't want to rock his relationship with the Americans," says Professor Hassassian. "At least on an official level, Arafat is trying to show that he will sit on the fence."