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Protests Mount in Support of Iraq
Published on Saturday, February 24, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
US Bombing Fallout Continues
Protests Mount in Support of Iraq
by Davan Maharaj
RAMALLAH, West Bank--On the eve of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's visit to the region, Palestinians sought to yank the welcome mat Friday, staging demonstrations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip in support of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The protests sparked numerous clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, leaving at least one Palestinian dead and dozens injured.

Fighting was especially intense in the Gaza Strip, where Powell will meet with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Sunday to discuss what peacemaking role the U.S. should play in talks between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.

In Gaza, Palestinians fired mortar shells from two police posts toward the Jewish settlements of Dugit and Aley Sinai. No settlers were injured.

In retaliation, the Israeli army shelled two Palestinian police posts, then closed the major thoroughfare in Gaza, in effect splitting in two the 140-square-mile swath of sand that is home to more than 1 million Palestinians and a few thousand Jewish settlers.

After the roadway was closed, many Palestinians--including a bride in her wedding gown--abandoned their cars and walked along a beach to get around the two tanks and two jeeps blocking the road that connects north and south Gaza.

Israeli security forces told state radio that they had hoped that Arafat and his Palestinian Authority would have controlled the number of violent clashes in the two days before Powell's visit.

But protesters continued with what has become a Friday ritual: noon prayers followed by marches and clashes with soldiers at Israeli checkpoints.

On this Friday, Hussein and the recent bombings of Iraqi targets by U.S. and British jets were on the minds on many demonstrators.

"Saddam, put your armies on the water," chanted young demonstrators from the radical Islamic group Hamas, "and let your weapons feed on the blood of Zionists."

About 2,000 people marched to Manara Square in downtown Ramallah, in the West Bank, where they cheered as demonstrators set ablaze a paper model of an Iraqi Scud missile with the photographs of Powell, President Bush and outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"Saddam is the most honest Arab leader," said 30-year-old Jamileh Khatib, who was among dozens of marchers hoisting Iraqi flags. "He is the only Arab leader to shock Israel. The barbaric bombing of Iraq will not stop him."

The outpouring of support for the Iraqi leader shows how times have changed in the West Bank and Gaza, where nearly 3 million Palestinians live.

Slightly more than two years ago, Arafat's security forces arrested opposition politicians, clamped down on journalists and quelled protests in the wake of similar airstrikes against Iraq. That was at a time when Arafat was trying to improve ties with Washington in an effort to achieve an independent Palestinian state.

But since the Palestinian uprising broke out in late September, Hussein has become an increasingly admired figure, funneling millions of dollars to families of the more than 350 Palestinians who have been killed in clashes.

On Friday, Arafat's police stopped traffic, allowing protesters to burn U.S. flags in the middle of the street in Ramallah. In front of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament in Gaza, protester Ahmed Majid Hamed torched a U.S. flag, to the delight of hundreds of demonstrators.

"Powell's visit is meaningless," said Hamed, a newlywed 20-year-old Gazan. "They are just coming and going, and nothing has changed. We have never seen anything positive from their side."

Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Arafat's Fatah movement who was present at the Ramallah demonstration, said the outpouring of support for Hussein is understandable.

"Saddam has become a symbol" of resistance against Israel, he said, "but the people are really expressing support for the Iraqi people, who are the true victims of these bombings."

After the demonstration in Manara Square, Barghouti and leaders of other Palestinian factions marched to the Ayoush junction in north Ramallah, where they watched Palestinian youths confront Israeli soldiers.

In an empty lot near the checkpoint, young boys carrying small bags of stones warmed up like pitchers in a bullpen. Later, they marched to the checkpoint, unleashing their rocks at Israeli soldiers in parked army jeeps.

The soldiers responded with tear gas, then rubber-coated steel bullets, and later standard ammunition. Paramedics from wailing ambulances would swoop and pick up the injured youths, only to repeat the scene over and over.

Palestinian hospital officials also reported that Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 21-year-old Palestinian man, Mohammed Hasan Mousa, during a clash in a West Bank village near Bethlehem. Mousa was among about 200 Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the village when he was shot in the chest, a hospital spokesman said.

The Israeli army said its troops fired rubber-coated metal bullets at a crowd of Palestinian stone throwers outside the village. An army spokesman denied that soldiers were involved in any shooting inside the village.

* * *
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Jerusalem and Fayed abu Shamallah in Gaza contributed to this report.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times


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