As the US-led bombing campaign zeroes in on targets in Afghanistan, the main protagonists in the war, George Bush and Osama bin Laden, have faraway Palestine on their minds.
In a bid to court Arab and Muslim countries, Mr. Bush recently voiced unprecedented backing for Palestinian statehood. Mr. bin Laden, meanwhile, has vowed that Americans will never be safe unless Palestinians are.
Their duel over what is arguably the most resonant and emotive cause in the Arab world began echoing on the streets of Gaza Monday, when Palestinian security forces shot dead two people during protests against the bombings. The deaths are part of a struggle between Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), which views a more sympathetic Washington as the linchpin of its struggle for statehood, and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which sees the United States as the problem, not the solution.
President Bush made a qualified endorsement of Palestinian statehood for the first time last week, saying, "The idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right to Israel to exist is respected."
Palestinian resistance to the US bombings in Afghanistan, though at present not very widespread, is not confined to Hamas alone, as young supporters of other factions also joined Monday's protests. Some of them taunted the Palestinian police, controlled by Arafat, as "traitors."
"I'm optimistic because day by day, the mask that America is a country that supports democracy and freedom is being lifted, and we are seeing the colonialist country that is always finding excuses for its greed and control of others," says Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader. "Every day people see the bombings on television and support for our point of view grows."
Abu Shanab distrusts bin Laden's commitment to the Palestinians, but says the point is not bin Laden so much as the US military action. "We in Hamas see that the Americans are driven by a crusader attitude against Islam, as Bush himself has said," he says.
Hamas, notorious for its suicide bombings, has rejected all US-backed peace efforts here, and seeks the eradication of Israel and its replacement with a country governed by Islamic law. Despite its extremist ideology, political pragmatism has enabled Hamas to survive and at times flourish as the leading opposition group to the largely secular nationalist PA.
One of those killed Monday was a 13-year-old boy, Abdullah Rifrangi. Twenty others were injured as PA police dispersed what they said was an illegal protest. More than 10 policemen were reported injured. Demonstrators later attacked a police station. It was the worst inter-Palestinian fighting in seven years, and amid charges of excessive force by police, the PA agreed to set up an inquiry commission.
Authorities decided to close off the Strip to the outside world on Tuesday. By Wednesday, Gaza, a densely populated coastal strip with a large Palestinian refugee population, had returned to relative normalcy, though Hamas predicts there will be more trouble if police prevent the public from releasing frustrations over the bombings of fellow Muslims.
Arafat's stance on Afghanistan could not be further away from that of Hamas. He has repeatedly offered to work together with the US to combat terrorism and has refrained from condemning the bombings of Afghanistan.
Ironically, in recent days, Arafat has emerged as one of the most pro-American voices in the Arab world. However, he will not be able to ignore street sentiment if the bombing campaign extends beyond Afghanistan to an Arab country, analysts believe. The PA leader, they say, has learned from his mistake of 1991, when he backed Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the losing side in the Gulf War. The tilt toward Baghdad was one reason he was excluded from a direct role in the postwar diplomacy.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US have created a "window" of opportunity for the Palestinians, says Ali Jarbawi, a professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. Not only Bush, but also Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Britain's Tony Blair have been stressing the need for diplomatic movement on the Palestinian issue. And even bin Laden's remarks about Palestine have helped the PA's cause by stressing that the lack of a solution to the Palestine issue is a cause of terrorism, says Jarbawi. "Everyone is saying that you have to pay attention to the Palestinian issue. This is an opening that can be utilized," Jarbawi says.
But for the strategy to work, Arafat will have to prove he can make good on his declaration three weeks ago of a cease-fire with Israeli forces.
Israel is extremely skeptical. Four people have been wounded in Palestinian attacks since Monday, and hawks in the cabinet of Ariel Sharon are pressing for sustained military strikes against the PA. Arafat's forces have arrested a handful of militants - too few in the Israeli view to prove their seriousness about stopping attacks by Hamas and the small militant group Islamic Jihad. Meanwhile, Palestinians point to continuing fatalities at the hands of the Israeli Army.
Sustaining the cease-fire would require the cooperation of Hamas. While the PA has been pressing for this in the name of national unity, Abu Shanab would say only that Hamas is constantly weighing whether it is an appropriate time or not to launch an "operation."
In Mr. Jarbawi's view, Hamas will bow to pressure for restraint in the short term. But if the US does not move quickly, if the tight Israeli control around Palestinian areas are not eased, and if "Sharon continues to hit Palestinians everywhere, then after a short while, not a matter of months,the people will become furious again. And no one will blame Hamas if it goes back to its old tactics."