Comment: "Gulf War II: the "Nightmare of the World"

Palestinians don't appear to be very concerned or excited over the growing tension between the United States and Iraq. This seems to be merely a surprise to members of the international media. But the lack of reaction is a serious disappointment to Israeli politicians and journalists, who are desperately seeking official or popular expressions of pro-Iraqi/anti-US sentiments that would help them to discredit Palestinians and their leadership without attempting to understand what is really going on in the minds of Palestinians and how it relates to the frustrating reality they are experiencing.

For its part, the Palestinian Authority appears to be moving rapidly to imitate the traditional policies of Arab governments; on February 9, a ban was placed on all political demonstrations. The decision is serious, it seems - the same day some 100 demonstrators in Ramallah were surrounded and blocked by about 300 Palestinian police and soldiers.

In fact, while the Palestinian people feel deep sympathy for the Iraqi people and their Iraqi cause, there doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm for public demonstrations of that sympathy. The reasons for this are not related to the PA ban, but have more to do with the widespread lack of support here for the policies of the Iraqi government and Saddam Hussein. Moreover, once before Palestinians dared to hope that they might benefit from an improvement in the balance of powers - eight years ago when Iraq was seen as a strong country - but nothing came of it. Instead, things have gotten even worse, despite numerous declarations from US and Arab officials during and after the 1991 Gulf war to the effect that, immediately after imposing the tenets of international legitimacy on Iraq, the international community - led by the US - would impose those same principles in the Arab Israeli conflict.

It was these declarations which enabled Arab leaders to explain their support for the American strike on Iraq to their people. They were able to argue that support for the alliance would strengthen the Arab demand for implementing international legitimacy on the issue of Palestine. When US president Bush and secretary of state Baker came up with their Middle East peace process initiative immediately after the Gulf war, many in the Arab world, including numerous Palestinians, especially in the leadership, thought that this was the start of what they had been promised by the Americans.

Palestinians have now had eight years of this American initiative and on the eve of another possible strike on Iraq there is a general consensus that it is hopeless to expect anything serious to come from the United States and the international community, regardless of what might or might not happ en in the Gulf and what position Palestinians take on it. And so, the prevailing Palestinian feeling is a mixture of passive sympathy and apathy.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority seems to want to be over-cautious. On the one hand, it is trying to prevent the public from expressing its feelings, a ban on freedom of expression which is acceptable to the Americans. On the other hand, the PA is trying to present an official position that fits in easily with the overall Arab position. This means politically supporting the call for Iraqi adherence to Security Council resolutions and American efforts in that direction, while emphasizing the need to solve the problem through diplomatic rather than military means, not forgetting at the same time to ask the US government medical supplies and protective equipment.

The most common feeling among Palestinian officials and the public is that while war is possible in the Gulf soon, it is unlikely to reach this part of the Middle East. The view here is that Saddam is a dead dog in terms of military might and will find it difficult if not impossible to bite a target nearly a thousand miles away. So, while Palestinians do not feel that Saddam is dangerous, they do expect an American strike, because they feel it has nothing to do with destroying Saddam's weapons capability. They feel the US is striking at Iraq's potential power, on the economic or scientific or consequently military level.

The US and other Western countries cannot afford to allow the survival of an independent and unpredictable regime next to the old-style Arab governments. It should not be forgotten that the original cause of the 1990 Gulf crisis that ended with the Gulf war was Saddam's intention to mobilize OPEC nations to approve an increase in the price of oil, which is sold for almost nothing on the world market. This is the true meaning behind Madeleine Albright's contention that "Saddam's aspirations are the nightmare of the world."