Saudis channel anger into charity

Frustrated by what they see as US bias, Saudis are sending millions of dollars to aid Palestinian families.

Bombarded by television images of Israeli violence and bloodied Palestinians, Selma Dajani felt compelled to act. Little did she know that a modest idea would turn into a flood of support – and underscore the depth of popular pro-Palestinian and anti-American feeling in Saudi Arabia.

"We were glued to the TV, and just so frustrated because we couldn't do anything," the Palestinian housewife says.

Then she and a group of friends decided to sell T-shirts to raise money to send a truck of donations to the West Bank. They sold 400 T-shirts – imprinted with the word Palestine wrapped in barbed wire – in a single day. In less than three weeks, huge support enabled them to send 69 trucks full of supplies.

"The response was amazing," Mrs. Dajani says. "One woman brought all her gold to sell; others brought their children to work.... It shows how much people wanted to give."

From Dajani's back yard to the donation offices of the government-sponsored Saudi Committee for the Support of the Al Quds [Jerusalem] Uprising in the capital, Riyadh, Saudis are channeling their anger into charity.

Tens of millions of dollars have been sent to aid the Palestinian families of those killed – civilians and suicide bombers alike. More than 100 people seriously injured in the 19-month uprising have received medical care in the desert kingdom. And a boycott of all products from America – Israel's strongest ally – has spread like sand caught in a hot desert wind.

"I am so angry, and everyone I know is angry," says Omar, a young Saudi professional who was educated in the US. "You can't find a single American product in my house – not one. I don't even eat hamburgers anymore."

But while Saudis view their aid as an Islamic duty, Israel accuses Saudi Arabia of funding terrorism by supporting the families of suicide bombers and militants. Among the documents Israelis collected during their West Bank offensive last month were letters from the Al Quds fund that referred to a payment of more than $500,000 to 102 families of those Israel calls "terrorists."

Saudis dismiss those claims and say their aid is only necessary because of Israeli military actions. They draw a line – as do senior US officials – between Saudi support and that of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who has offered $25,000 to families of any suicide bomber.

Although 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 came from Saudi Arabia – and more than one-third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are Saudi, according to US officials – Saudi Arabia has never knowingly supported terrorism, Western diplomats and analysts say. "The Saudis are not supporting Palestinian terrorist groups," says a US official here. "If they were, we would have a tremendous problem."

Analysts note that some private Saudi money has been funneled in the past to Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which carry out many of the suicide attacks.

But that is far removed from the new reservoir of popular sympathy for the Palestinian cause, Saudis say. America's staunch support for Israel is fueling a regional boycott of American products that has reached fever pitch.

"The other day, my daughter said: 'Don't take me to McDonald's. The teachers tell us that money goes to Israel,' " says Saleh Al-Khathlan, a US-educated political scientist at King Saud University in Riyadh.

Recent TV footage from the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin "made the difference," he says, by showing "Israel destroying houses with people still inside, and kids being killed. I don't think Americans see the same images."

"People give support out of sympathy, to educate and feed people. What is wrong with that? They hear these sermons in the mosques: 'Help our Muslim brothers.' It is in our blood," Mr. Al-Khathlan says. "What makes me angry is [Israelis] want us to say goodbye to our brothers, while the US gives them total support. Everyone else is in the terrorist camp."

In a recent Friday sermon, Sheikh Osama Khayyat, imam of the Grand Mosque at Mecca, said the Palestinian struggle would go on: "It's a live picture of the confrontation between truth ... and evil, representing the aggressors, occupiers, criminals, and violators of sanctities."

"Though we recognize Jews as people of the book, and their major prophets are ours, we feel they have rejected the guidance of God," says Maneh Al-Johani, head of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

"Saudi support doesn't go to Hamas or Islamic Jihad – it is only trying to help the Palestinian people survive," says Mr. Johani. "There is nothing to help recruit suicide bombers. We are told that Hamas alone has 4,000 young people signed up for it."

That view resonates on the street – and on mobile-phone text messages that read: "Let's make May 'non-American products month.' " or "Heinz is NOT a German company."

A McDonald's outlet in a Riyadh mall features a sign that explains that the franchise here is "100 percent Saudi owned." On the corniche in Jeddah, a spray-painted Star of David on a Pepsi-Cola machine marks a US company to be boycotted.

Others have taken far more dramatic steps of protest in the past, however. NATO forces last October raided a Saudi-sponsored charity in Bosnia and found, according to US officials quoted by The Associated Press, computer files of before-and-after photographs of the World Trade Center, US embassies in Africa, and the USS Cole; maps of government buildings in Washington; and materials for forging US State Department badges.

Since Sept. 11, Saudi Arabia has issued new rules for charities that work abroad, and has belatedly clamped down on bank accounts used by extremists. Saudi officials acknowledge, however, that they can do little to track the overseas holdings of oil-rich citizens.

That doesn't affect the headquarters of the Al Quds committee in Riyadh, where the bright offices resemble a bank. This group – the one Israel accuses of supporting suicide bombers – operates under Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz.

The Al Quds website says it provides $5,333 to the family of every Palestinian killed in the uprising, and it has sent $133 million to the occupied territories. "Here is where you can make your donation," an accountant at a seedy collection office along a Riyadh highway tells a journalist he mistakes for a donor.

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