Palestinians fear the price they will have to pay

Palestinian Reaction
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Mahmoud Abdullah was at home watching television, when news of the terror assault on the United States broke. As the carnage grew, he did not take to the streets to dance in celebration, as some Palestinians did.

But he did feel this horrendous slaughter had proved a point. "I told myself that this is a strike from God, and it showed that there are some forces stronger than the Americans in this world," he said yesterday. "I felt that there had been a change in the balance within the world."

Mr Abdullah, 23, used to make his living selling clothes in Bethlehem market, but now – like many, many thousands of other Palestinians on the West Bank – he is unemployed, having lost his livelihood to the economic collapse brought about by the intifada and Israel's military siege of Palestinian areas.

Bitterness has set in as the loss of Palestinian lives has risen steadily over the last year to more than 600. With it, has come a deepening of a long-held antipathy towards the US for the money – some $3bn a year – and weapons and political support it has lavished on Israel.

Most of the world will have been disgusted by the television footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets in the hours after the catastrophe in the US. The crowds were not large – except in the West Bank city of Nablus where several thousand took part – but the impact of the pictures was immense.

It was far more shocking, and even more self-destructive, than the Palestinians' mass demonstrations of support in favour of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, or the hideous pleasure regularly expressed on their streets over the ruthless murder of Israeli civilians by Islamic suicide bombers.

Many Palestinians were at pains to point out yesterday that these revellers did not reflect the majority view. "These are people in total despair," said one PLO official, "They know that they will be blamed for these attacks, even though the Palestinians were not involved, and they believe Israel will now be allowed to do what it likes to them."

People in the streets of the occupied territories approached by The Independent yesterday expressed conflicting emotions. They condemned the massacre – along with their own leader, Yasser Arafat, and the entire Middle East, including some of its most extreme elements. Mr Arafat donated blood yesterday for the victims of the terror attacks while other Palestinians held a vigil in Jerusalem.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, leaders of the Palestinian Hamas and several radical Islamic clerics, came out against it. So did the countries on America's blacklist of nations which it accuses of "sponsoring terror" – Libya, Sudan and Iran.

And yet, at street-level, Arab opposition to American policy in the Middle East remained unshaken, and often emerged entwined with the view that the assault on America represented a terrible form of divine justice, a counterblow by Islam against the world's secular, consumer-mad superpower.

It is not – Palestinians argued – a contradiction to wholly oppose the mass murders in the US but to continue to argue that American conduct in the Middle East has been wrong and cruel.

If any heart could be expected to be hardened to Tuesday's horrors it was that of Nahme Hard, 58. Last November, her two sisters – Rachme, 59, and Aziza, 54 – were killed by a missile fired from a US-made Apache helicopter outside her Bethlehem home. It was Israel's first assassination of the intifada, and it found its target – a Fatah gunman called Hussein Abayat, 34. But it also killed the two innocent women, who were passing by.

Nahme has a picture of Saddam Hussein, his chest decked in medals, above the door of her stark home at Beit Sahour, on the edge of Bethlehem. She condemns America's failure to persuade Israel to lift the economic blockade of the West Bank and Gaza, and shakes her head despairingly at the suffering of her people.

But the massacres in New York and Washington horrified her as much as any other. "I cried. I thought – what crime have these people committed? They are men, women and children. What have they done wrong? They aren't guilty of anything."

There were nods of agreement from her nephew, a 31-year-old officer in the Palestinian Preventative Security force called Hamed. He said: "I was shocked when I saw people celebrating. They are not representatives of the Palestinian people. They were just kids. Our battle is not with the Americans. It is with Israel. Civilians should not be killed like this. Osama bin Laden is not our friend. He is an enemy."

Underlying these emotions, there is a widespread fear of the price that Palestinians will now have to pay. Despite their dislike of US policy, the Palestinian leadership still looks to Washington as the only power that can ultimately mediate between them and Israel. After this week's events, the Bush administration, always reluctant to be sucked into the Middle East quagmire, will keep its distance.