On West Bank, firm Iraq support
Hussein last week gave 26 Palestinian families $10,000 checks for relatives killed by Israeli troops.
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Money, Mohammed Shkukami insists, played no part in his teenage son's death.
Last May, Amer carried a bomb to Tel Aviv, where he killed himself and two others. Shortly after, the Shkukamis received a $25,000 check from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein for Amer's act of "martyrdom."
Iraqi payments have become a regular feature in this conflict, but ask Mr. Shkukami if they drove his son, and he refutes the idea with quiet dignity.
"I deny completely that he was influenced by money," Shkukami says firmly. "He was negatively influenced by the [Israeli] siege of Jenin. He never thought Iraq would help us."
Long a champion of the Palestinian cause, Iraq has funded the families of suicide bombers and those hurt by Israel's army since this intifada began.
Now, the looming US-led attack on Iraq is deepening a sense of vulnerability in the occupied territories, but Palestinian support for Iraq and its leader seems largely undimmed.
"Iraq helps Palestinians physically and morally; it's one of our main supports," says Shkukami. Wearing a flannel shirt and black leather jacket to ward off the winter chill that penetrates his living room, the retired laborer sits quietly in a straight-backed chair, a lifetime's hard work visible in his thick, worn hands and sloping posture.
"Even if I hadn't received financial assistance, I would condemn the blind attack on Iraq by the Americans," Shkukami says. "I hope George Bush will review his thoughts."
That does not seem likely. President Bush didn't even say the word "Iraq" in his brief Friday speech about the "road map" to a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but both sides here picked up on the unstated theme.
Israeli commentators dismissed the speech as a prop for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, under heavy pressure at home for his support of the United States.
Mr. Blair's critics say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not Iraqi disarmament, is the pressing Middle East issue. Their arguments are fueled by figures: In the absence of talks, the death toll here mounts, with the Israeli army killing 11 Palestinians this weekend.
"Statements about the road map [peace plan] need to be viewed, first and foremost, as a public-relations ploy," writes Hemi Shalev, a columnist for the Ma'ariv newspaper.
Palestinian analysts were equally cynical. "Mr. Bush wanted to say something to the Arabs to make them feel better about his attacking Iraq," says Ali Jarbawi, a political-science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
Mr. Jarbawi scoffs at the US view that a democratic Iraq will speed peace here. "There's no linkage between changing the regime in Iraq and achieving peace here," he says. "Changing Sharon may achieve that, but changing Saddam? What does that have to do with this?"
Israeli officials and Bush would argue that the connection lies in Iraq's funding for Palestinians. Last week, Iraq gave each of 26 Gaza Strip families a $10,000 check for family members killed by Israeli troops.
Palestinians dispute US and Israeli claims that the money rewards terror. "We are carrying out humanitarian acts, but because we are close to Iraq, Israel believes we're carrying out terrorism. It's not true," says the director of the Arab Liberation Front, which funnels the Iraqi funds to Palestinian families.
The director, who calls himself Abu Alla, sits in a threadbare Ramallah office that is barely warmed by a small floor heater. He estimates they have channeled some $15 million since the intifada began. "The money isn't an incentive," he says. "Why does the West concentrate on suicide bombs and not the injustice that drives them?"
Abu Alla's group, a branch of Iraq's Baath party, collects the names of those injured or killed in the intifada and sends them to Iraq. When money arrives in their bank account, they hold ceremonies to hand the checks over to families. The amounts - $25,000 for suicide bombers, $10,000 for others - are determined by Iraq, he says.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's support for Hussein in the last Gulf War cost Palestinians dearly. Kuwait evicted thousands and many here believe Bush carries a grudge against Mr. Arafat for supporting Hussein against his father, the US president at the time.
Even so, support for Hussein has only grown since 1991, says Azzam Al Ahmed, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's (PLO) ambassador to Iraq. If Israel doesn't completely seal the territories, Mr. Al Ahmed expects large demonstrations in support of Iraq, even though he says Iraqi aid has slipped.
"Israel tries to exaggerate Iraqi support for Palestine, but its support since 1990 doesn't equal 10 percent of the aid it sent between 1980 and 1990," he says. "Now Saudi Arabia gives double or triple what Iraq does."
Ahmed's only complaint about Iraqi aid is that it is not sent through the PLO. Most analysts say this is because Iraq doesn't want funds siphoned off before they reach ordinary Palestinians. "We reject their method of payment, but they said they want a direct relationship with the Palestinian people," shrugs Ahmed. "It undermines us, but what can we do?"
Ahmed says the funds serve donors' interests even as they help Palestinians. "All Arab regimes use the Palestinian cause to make propaganda for themselves," he says. Even so, there is a special respect for Iraq.
Palestinians point out their people have been able to settle in Iraq, owning homes and land. In other Arab countries, including Jordan and Lebanon, Palestinians are penned into refugee camps and barred from certain professions. "Saddam Hussein was respected by Palestinians before the intifada because he stood by us, for sure more than other Arab leaders," says Mohammed Darraj, the father of a 9-year-old boy who was killed by a stray Israeli bullet last March while playing in his bedroom.
The Darraj family received $10,000 and while Mr. Darraj says he's grateful, he says money isn't the issue. Standing in his son's bedroom, where toy trucks still line the window sill, he echoes Mr. Shkukami, whose son died willingly in the Tel Aviv suicide bombing. "All the money in the world wouldn't make up for losing my son," he says. "The loss is more than a parent should bear."