Between closure and curfew, between terror attack and IDF retaliation, in the midst of their social and economic misery, the Palestinians are finding time to protest against the war in Iraq and to show solidarity with the Iraqi people and its rulers.

Last Friday there was a large demonstration in Gaza, on Monday in Kalkilya, two days ago the children of Gaza offered a prayer against the war, yesterday there was a large protest in Ramallah, and today there is another protest planned in Gaza. The Palestinians promise that as the winds of war blow harder there will be more demonstrations and acts of protest…

The Palestinians see the war in Iraq as a juncture from which it will be possible to embark on a new political course. Arafat hopes to profit from the post-war order, so despite his solidarity with Saddam Hussein, war is not a bad option as far as he is concerned. For this reason the large demonstrations, especially those led by Hamas, embarrass him. Arafat is also embarrassed by the Iraqi financial aid that flows into the territories: only this week, according to sources in Gaza, half a million dollars arrived to be distributed to families of shahids. After he shouted, “A million martyrs marching to Jerusalem,” he cannot reject the Iraqi aid. But still, over the past two weeks he tried to cool the excitement of the masses, and his men worked behind the scenes to remove the posters of Saddam Hussein from the streets. Arafat tried to create the impression that the Palestinians’ protest against the war is similar to that in the US: the support is directed at the Iraqi people, not at its leaders.

The wait for the war this time is accompanied by the Palestinians’ concern that Israel will take advantage of the international attention in order to hit the Palestinians hard, to occupy Gaza or even carry out a mass expulsion to Jordan. In Ramallah, Nablus, and Gaza residents are storing gas, medicine, flour, and even chlorine to purify drinking water.

On the fringes of Palestinian politics there are voices, mostly those of intellectuals, which support taking advantage of the offensive in Iraq in order to end the Intifada. Because of these voices, concerns have been expressed that the Intifada will fade during the war, and that it will be difficult to re-ignite it in the future. Another concern expressed is that Sharon will take advantage of the terror attacks to retaliate harshly.

Azzam el-Ahmed, a member of the Palestinian cabinet who bears the title of the Ambassador of Palestine in Baghdad, says: “For us, the war in Iraq is an important way station, for better or worse. On the one hand, it could lead to a new atmosphere and advance Palestinian interests. On the other hand, Sharon might take advantage of the war to strike at the Palestinians and reshuffle the deck. For now we are waiting: We know how the war will start, and we do not know how it will end.” Money and Morale

The Palestinian street shows full solidarity with Iraq and with its ruler. Arab countries that have allowed the US army to deploy on their territory are seen by the Palestinians as “traitors,” while Saddam is seen as a hero. Pictures of him are in the papers, and the Iraqi flag is a common sight at demonstrations and funerals. The Palestinians say that Saddam Hussein, more than any other Arab leader, helps the Intifada both in terms of money and of morale.

Two months after the outbreak of the Intifada, Salem Raked, director-general of the Arab Liberation Front, a pro-Iraqi Palestinian terror organization, went to Baghdad to meet with Saddam. Saddam asked that members of Raked’s organization not tarry behind Hamas and Fatah, and that they join the struggle against Israel. Immediately after he returned to Ramallah Raked met with Arafat, relayed greetings from Saddam, and requested weapons. Arafat promised him ten rifles. When two weeks went by with no sign of the guns, Raked decided to forget Arafat’s promises, and he purchased weapons with money he received from Baghdad: six Kalashnikov rifles, two M-16s, and a handgun. The weapons were given to terrorists from the Arab Liberation Front, who began carrying out terror attacks on roads near Ramallah.

Five months ago Raked went back to Arafat and asked him to keep his promise and give him weapons. This time the rais did not let him down: he wrote a few words to Haj Ismail, the commander of the Palestinian security services, and Haj Ismail gave him a Kalashnikov and a handgun.

The Arab Liberation Front, which is funded by Iraqi intelligence, numbers no more than a few hundred members and supporters in the West Bank and Gaza. This is one of the two terror arms that Iraq operates in the territories. The second is the Palestinian Liberation Front, headed by Mohammed Abbas, the man who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship. Over the past two years he has been planning large-scale terror attacks such as poisoning water sources, planting a large bomb at Ben-Gurion Airport, blowing up a Tel Aviv skyscraper, and taking over a tank and killing huge numbers of people with its shells. These plans, among others, were approved by the Iraqis and were in advanced stages of preparation: terrorists from the West Bank were sent to Iraq to train under the command of an Iraqi officer named Bassam al-Ashkar, who is in charge of the ties with the Palestinians. The training included, among other things, a course on how to drive a tank. Luckily, the Israeli GSS worked efficiently, and the terrorists, including Raked, were arrested. Educating the Children of the Dead

Iraq is one of the main financial backers of the Intifada. The rates that Saddam set at the beginning of the conflict were as follows: USD 10,000 to the family of someone killed, USD 1,000 to someone who was wounded and disabled as a result, and USD 500 for someone lightly wounded. Saddam also committed himself to covering all educational expenses for the children of those killed, from kindergarten to university, and promised to provide free medical treatment in Iraq or Jordan to those wounded in the Intifada. In May 2001, when suicide bombings became routine, the Iraqi president announced: “Whoever carries out such an operation is not committing suicide but is sacrificing his soul for God.” In order to give more weight to his words, he raised the rate and decided to give the family of each suicide bomber USD 15,000. A few months later the rate was raised to USD 25,000. All told, Iraq has given the Palestinians more than USD 15 million over the past two years.

Last March, at a meeting with a Palestinian delegation headed by Farouk Kadumi, Saddam announced his intention to give the Palestinians one billion dollars, in the framework of the “oil for food” program approved for Iraq by the UN. The grant was held up by the UN’s sanctions committee, which claimed that giving such generous aid contradicted Iraq’s claim that its people were suffering under the yoke of the siege. The Iraqi people might be dealing with serious difficulties, but only a month later, at the end of April, Saddam announced that he would give USD 25,000 to any resident of the Jenin refugee camp whose house had been destroyed.

But the wide support that the Iraqi leader enjoys on the Palestinian street is not only because of the financial aid. The Palestinians explain their deeply-felt solidarity by emphasizing the similarity that they see between their suffering and that of the Iraqi people. They see the American war against Iraq as a mirror of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the struggle between East and West.

Committees supporting the Iraqi people have begun to be active in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, overseen by Abdullah Hurani of Gaza. “The Palestinian people, like all of the nations of the world, are demonstrating against the war,” he says. “We have known war, we know what suffering is, what death and destruction are, and so we oppose the war. This is a war of the wild West against law and logic: Rambo against Hammurabi.”

The question is how the Palestinians will behave during the war itself. The commanders of the Palestinian security organizations believe that if American bombs cause a large number of Iraqi dead, there will be an outbreak of anger in the territories, as well as in all Arab countries. But in the territories the protests will be directed at Israel as well, and there is only a short distance from there to another wave of suicide bombings.

This piece ran on February 7, 2003 in Yediot Ahronot