RAMALLAH, WEST BANK, JAN. 20 -- As Iraqi missiles fell on Israel's coastal plain Friday and Saturday, Palestinian residents here huddled in rooms sealed with masking tape and bleach-soaked cloths, in case the warheads contained deadly chemical agents. Still, when they heard the thud of explosions, they cheered for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"We were happy. A little scared, maybe, but mainly happy," said May, a shopkeeper, during a two-hour break today in the military curfew imposed by occupying Israeli forces. Added Amer, a 15-year-old boy who stood nearby: "It's wonderful that missiles hit Tel Aviv. At last Israelis are feeling something like we feel with their army here."
Saddam seems more popular than ever among the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Far from abandoning Saddam as his promises to "liberate Palestine" are buried in Baghdad's rubble, Arabs in the Israeli-occupied lands have been stirred by the the Iraqi leader's standing up to a massive Western onslaught and managing to strike at the Israelis.
Two Western reporters in search of opinions were quickly surrounded by Palestinians on a downtown street. Everyone who passed by, it seemed, wanted to express admiration for Saddam. Most seemed full of emotion. "Saddam is winning, of course he is winning," said Sammy, 27, an employee in a United Nations refugee camp. "Why? Because he is still fighting. He is fighting 28 countries, and yet after two days he fired 11 missiles at Tel Aviv, with precision. This is a victory."
Palestinians here and in neighboring Jordan embraced Saddam as a hero early in the Persian Gulf crisis. While their enthusiasm has not echoed in the streets of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria or other U.S.-allied states, political leaders and intellectuals contend that the groundswell of emotion here could spread throughout the Arab world in the coming weeks.
"We are all Arabs," said Hanan Ashrawi, a professor and frequent Palestinian spokeswoman. "No one can stand aside and watch the West ruthlessly and relentlessly pound an Arab country without feeling sympathetic."
"The war has increased support for Saddam tremendously," Ashrawi said in an interview in her home here. "People now see him as an underdog, or as some almost mythical figure from Arab culture and history: the man who says, 'I will die fighting, but I will maintain my pride and dignity.' And who do they have to compare him with? By contrast, the other Arab leaders appear to be subservient to the West, trying to save themselves."
Palestinian political leaders, more aware than their followers of a likely defeat of Iraq, have avoided cheering its military successes. "We are not happy about those missiles on Baghdad, and we are not happy about those missiles on Tel Aviv," East Jerusalem leader Faisal Husseini said today.
Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, who has never supported Iraq, said, "The missile attack on Israel is an escalation, and every time there is an escalation of the situation, the Palestinians suffer."
Still, supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the territories defiantly dispute suggestions that their movement will be damaged by its pro-Iraqi tilt. "The PLO will go through some hard times after the war," said Ashrawi. "But it has survived many crises in the past, and it will survive this one. If anything, the Palestinians will insist on keeping the PLO as its leadership more than ever."
This morning's two-hour break was the first opportunity for residents of the occupied territories to shop for food and to air their views since the war began early Thursday. Israeli military authorities, fearing an outbreak of pro-Iraqi violence, have kept the entire Palestinian population outside of Jerusalem under a rigid curfew, warning that anyone who leaves his home "does so at his own risk."
So far, there has been almost no conflict. In Nablus on Saturday, the army said, a woman in a refugee camp was shot and killed during a demonstration by Palestinians celebrating the missile attacks on Tel Aviv. Palestinian sources gave a different account, saying a woman was shot dead while standing on the balcony of her home, breast-feeding her baby. Palestinians say army jeeps have been circulating through West Bank towns broadcasting the threat that anyone found outside will be shot -- a claim denied by the army.
While residents interviewed in Ramallah, in the hills overlooking the coastal plain, said they retreated to sealed rooms during the Iraqi missile raids, Palestinians in towns closer to Tel Aviv reportedly were more bold. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said today that some Arabs in the Gaza Strip and in Tulkarem, a West Bank town near the border with central Israel, climbed onto rooftops Friday morning to watch the Iraqi missiles come in, and cheered when they landed with a white flash and a boom.
A doctor who came to the army's civil administration compound in Ramallah in search of gas masks for relatives today said it was logical that Palestinians were not carrying out prewar threats to take to the streets in the event Iraq was attacked. "The Israelis are waiting for the results of the war, while allowing somebody else to fight this war for them," said Ghassan Samaha. "We have the same idea. We are waiting for Saddam to fight our war for us."
Palestinians, Samaha said, "would support a monkey if he promised to do something for our cause." If Saddam is vanquished, he added, "we will simply go on fighting for our rights in other ways."
Samaha, like the crowd of other applicants who gathered in front of the fortified army compound, did not succeed in obtaining gas masks. Although the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the army on the eve of the war to distribute masks to Palestinians in the territories, authorities so far are giving equipment only to hospitals and their own Arab civilian employees. The army maintains that it has only 170,000 masks for Palestinians -- less than one for every 10 residents.
A cardboard sign above the entrance to the civil administration building advised visitors in scrawled Arabic that they should return to their homes and wait for masks to be delivered to them. "That's what they say," said one haggard middle-aged man who stood outside. "But we know they will never come."
In related developments elsewhere:
Forty-three prominent Syrian writers, poets and artists issued a statement saying that "this criminal war affects not only Iraq but the whole Arab future" and urging that "the Arab man, wherever he is and no matter what his capabilities, should confront the U.S. criminality," news services reported.
But Syria's state-run Tishrin daily derided Saddam as "the lunatic of Baghdad" and made clear that President Hafez Assad is no longer contemplating automatic withdrawal from the multinational force if Israel retaliates.
In Cairo, Iraq's firing of Scud missiles at Israel has triggered Egyptian calls to preserve the Arab alliance arrayed against Saddam, according to special correspondent John Arundel.
"Most Arabs know this is a ploy by Saddam Hussein to divide the alliance," said Tahseen Bashir, a former diplomat who was a close aide to the late president Anwar Sadat. "No one in the Arab alliance is leaving his position."
"I think most Egyptians have less sympathy now for Saddam than ever before," said Abdel Monheim Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.