Palestinian Reaction: 'God has answered all our prayers to punish a criminal'

Palestinians shed no tears for Ariel Sharon, but some feared that his sudden disappearance from the political scene would usher in a new period of harsh measures targeting them.

The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas telephoned the acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for news of the ailing Mr Sharon, expressing concern about the Israeli leader's health. "No doubt, what happens to Mr Sharon affects Israel first, but it will not affect our elections," Mr Abbas said. "We look with great worry to what might happen if [Sharon] is harmed."

Some Palestinian officials said they feared that Mr Sharon's departure from politics could plunge the region into turmoil and derail the 25 January elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

But Palestinian radicals there found cause for celebration over the illness of Mr Sharon, who is widely hated in the Arab world.

"We say it frankly that God is great and is able to exact revenge on this butcher ... We thank God for this gift he presented to us on this new year," said Ahmed Jibril, the leader of the Syrian-backed faction Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Omar Musleh, a 22-year-old Islamic University student in Gaza City, said he rejoiced all night. "I was watching TV closely for an announcement of Sharon's passing," Mr Musleh said. "Finally, God has answered thousands of prayers to punish this criminal."

Hani al Masri, a leading political commentator, predicted that the new Israeli leadership would "need to show toughness against Palestinians". "I expect more violence to take place'' in the short term, he added. But in the long run, the departure of Mr Sharon would be seen as "good news" for the Palestinian cause. "The chances for imposing the Israeli solution has become less likely with the absence of Sharon at the helm of Israeli politics,'' Mr Masri said. "The Palestinian notion of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders has been strengthened."

Mr Sharon is widely mistrusted, if not hated, by most Palestinians, even with the pull-out from Gaza and the dismantling of some settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians believe his moves were part of a plan to impose his own solution on the Palestinians.

"We cannot consider him a peace-maker," Mr Masri said, adding that he expected Israel to continue construction of the controversial security barrier.

Palestinian lawmaker Tayseer Nasrallah believed Mr Sharon's departure would "positively help in the stability of the region" because the Prime Minister had been a "major element of tension. This is what has characterised his life from beginning to the end."

For Palestinians, Mr Sharon is the man who committed the 1953 massacre at Qibya in Jordan; he is held responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees in Beirut; he is blamed for the eruption of the Palestinian uprising; and many see his plan as putting an end to the Palestinian dream of statehood.

"His hands are stained with our blood, throughout his history," Mr Nasrallah said. "His departure will not be easy for Israel. He is the last general to have a strong impact on Israeli politics. His successors would be more extreme, but their ability to convince the world will be less."

Two Arab TV channels - Lebanon's Future Television and Dubai-based Al-Arabiya - wrongly reported that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had died yesterday.

* Palestinian police released a suspect in the kidnapping of British aid worker Kate Burton and her parents yesterday after gunmen went on the rampage demanding he be freed, a spokesman for the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades said.

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