From sacrifices, small fortunes

Rewards: Checks from Saddam Hussein are part of efforts to secure the support of poverty-stricken Palestinians.

March 13, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Mohammed Akram Nakhalla, a Palestinian militant, died fighting Israeli soldiers when they entered this city two months ago. Yesterday, his relatives claimed their reward.

In a ceremony at a YMCA hall, the leader of a marginal pro-Iraq group called the Arab Liberation Front gave the gunman's brother Samir a kiss on each cheek, a handshake and a certificate that read, "A generous gift from President Saddam Hussein to the family of the martyr of the al-Aqsa Intifada."

Stapled to the document was a check drawn from the Gaza branch of the Cairo-Amman Bank for $10,000, an astounding amount in a poverty-stricken city where, the World Bank estimates, more than half the population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day.

"I feel that [Hussein] understands the situation that the Palestinians are in," said Nakhalla, 27, who accepted on behalf of several family members. Referring to the Israeli army's curfews, sieges and house demolitions, he said, "The Americans are about to do to him the same thing that the Israelis are doing to us."

Nakhalla was one of 22 people who received checks totaling $235,000 during a raucous ceremony in a dingy room packed with mothers, wives and children holding photos of dead relatives and others shouting the rallying cry, "Our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for Palestine."

The hall was decorated with Hussein's Ba'ath Party flags, a banner proclaiming "Iraq and Palestine are in the same trench," and a 6-foot-high poster with images of Hussein and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat superimposed alongside Jerusalem's golden Dome of the Rock.

There were the obligatory lengthy speeches extolling "the great Saddam Hussein" and condemning what one leader labeled the "triangle of evil" - Britain, the United States and Israel. Another speaker assured the audience that Iraq and the Palestinians would persevere. "We have one land," he said to thunderous applause. "We will have one victory."

In some ways, the event was almost routine. Hussein, expressing solidarity with Palestinians fighting Israel and trying to win sympathy for his own plight, has given away more than $12 million to Palestinian families of suicide bombers, gunmen and others since the conflict erupted 29 months ago.

But the public ceremony seemed a bold move on what may be the eve of a war that could make yesterday's payments among the last. Israeli authorities view the gifts as financial incentives that encourage more violence and proof of Hussein's ties to groups responsible for terrorism.

For Arafat, Hussein's actions are yet another reminder of his political weakness and the Palestinian Authority's inability to provide basic services or help victims of the fighting, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,900 Palestinians and 725 Israelis.

The Arab Liberation Front was founded in Gaza after Arafat's return from exile in 1994. Abu Munif, 60, the group's political director, was born in what is now southern Israel. He went to Gaza when Israel became a state in 1948 and moved to Baghdad in 1963, where he spent the next 31 years.

His group has attracted a scant following among Palestinians, who are more likely to support a mainstream political faction such as Arafat's Fatah faction or an Islamic militant group like Hamas, which also runs schools and provides financial support.

About 3,500 people attended a pro-Iraq rally in Gaza two months ago in which the crowd urged Hussein to fire more missiles at Tel Aviv, compared with the 70,000 mourners at a funeral last week for a Hamas leader killed by Israel.

Still, Abu Munif said that the Palestinians are united against a war and believe Hussein can be a supreme Arab leader. "I hope that Iraq will win," he said.

Many of the people who attended the ceremony simply wanted their money. They loudly applauded the speeches and expressed sympathy for Hussein. Later, they said they had no intention of joining the Arab Liberation Front.

Rageda Zoheer, 23, lost her husband, Ala'a Khalifa Zoheer, to an Israeli missile attack two months ago, and she appeared uncomfortable in the carnival-like atmosphere. She knew that the group "wants us to come here so they can drum up more support."

Her 27-year-old husband ran a small grocery, which has since closed, and left her with three boys, ages 2,4 and 6. The $10,000 she received yesterday will enable her to pay off debts and reopen the store.

Asked whom she liked more, Arafat or Hussein, Zoheer smiled and quietly said, "Saddam Hussein."

Samir Nakhalla noted that the Palestinian Authority promised to give him and his relatives $1,500 but has not yet paid the money. He said his 24-year-old brother Mohammed was a gunman for Hamas, but also worked as a furniture upholsterer.

Like others interviewed, Nakhalla said he had given little thought to the ideological distinction between Hussein's Ba'ath Party, which advocated a single, secular state for all Arabs, and the dreams of Palestinians to have a state of their own.

"There is no difference between the people of Iraq and the people of Palestine," he said. "We are all suffering the same."

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