Palestinians Decry Gas-Mask Policy : Safety: They support Iraq’s attacks. But they complain that Israel is holding back on devices for their children.
Contradictory and impassioned, Palestinians expressed satisfaction Monday that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has hit Israel with missiles, but they also took steps to protect themselves against possible Iraqi chemical weapons attack and complained bitterly that Israel’s slow distribution of gas masks to Palestinians has excluded their children.
Rima Q., a Palestinian mother of three small daughters, showed off homemade gas masks she fashioned out of socks stuffed with cotton, tied at each end with long string which doubles as a band to keep the contraptions on the childrens’ heads.
“What else can I do?” she asked plaintively. “They don’t give masks to children. They give them to the parents, but do you think I can put on a mask for myself while the children have none?”
Israel is slowly handing out gas masks to the rebellious Palestinians under its rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as protection against the threat of chemical assault from Iraq. No masks have been made available for children under the age of 15, putting Palestinian parents in the position of being able to protect themselves while their children look on helplessly.
Palestinians seized on the unavailability of masks for children as an example of why Palestinians support Hussein, who has threatened to obliterate half of Israel with chemical bombs.
“You see? They don’t care about our children. They give us the masks so the press can see it,” Rima said. “We were glad Saddam sent his missiles. We want more attacks.”
A spokesman for the military government said the masks will be provided to children as soon as possible, but he declined to comment on why, more than five months into the Persian Gulf crisis, the masks were not readily available. In any case, overall distribution is slow; only about 13,000 masks have been given out in four days. The Palestinian population totals about 1.7 million.
“Maybe by next year, we’ll all finally have masks,” quipped Faisal Husseini, who is viewed widely as a moderate Palestinian leader. He refused to take the masks for his family because children were not receiving them.
Independent of the mask controversy, several Palestinians expressed joy at last week’s missile assault on Tel Aviv and Haifa. The gleeful reaction underlined the steady evolution of support for Hussein, who has taken up the Palestinian cause.
Admiration for the Iraqi leader developed last year, even before the Persian Gulf crisis began, as the 3-year-old Arab uprising against Israeli rule failed to produce tangible steps toward independence. Palestinians increasingly looked to Hussein, with his burgeoning military power and anti-Israeli rhetoric, as a kind of savior. After invading Kuwait, Hussein raised hopes by insisting that the Palestinian issue be tackled before he would consider pulling out of the captured emirate.
After the explosive arrival of Iraqi missiles, Hussein seems even more of a hero to Palestinians--never mind that, theoretically, the missiles’ notorious poor accuracy placed them potentially in danger. “I talked to a man in Gaza who said if three missiles hit us, it is all right, as long as one hits Israel,” recalled Husseini.
Israeli newspapers reported cheering and dancing among Palestinians when the missiles hit Israel last week. In Bethlehem, no one saw the missiles, but many residents received phone calls telling them of the news. Few seemed regretful.
“Tel Aviv always thought it could ignore our problems,” said Maher, a mechanic in Bethlehem. “Well, Saddam has let them know they cannot escape.”
Maher was busily lining a room in his small three-bedroom apartment with clear plastic to keep out poison gas. “I don’t think that Hussein will use chemical weapons. He wants world public opinion on his side and doesn’t want to provoke Israel into using atomic bombs,” Maher assured a visitor.
So why put up the plastic? “Mistakes can happen,” Maher said.
The West Bank, home to 1 million Palestinians, is a desolate place these days. When war broke out, Israel clamped a curfew on the entire population to suppress pro-Hussein agitation. On Sunday, the curfew was lifted for two hours so that Palestinians could buy food. In Bethlehem, masked youths responded to the opening with a march through the city, bringing down the customary torrent of tear gas from border police on patrol. On Monday, only a few stray cats dared creep along the streets. Soldiers and police warned everyone by loudspeaker to stay indoors.
Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait has caused extreme economic hardship among Palestinians: Relatives who held well-paying jobs in Kuwait and routinely sent money to the West Bank and Gaza have seen their jobs disappear in chaos and their bank accounts shrivel by the forced conversion of Kuwaiti currency into the weak Iraqi dinar.
Politically, the invasion has left the Palestinian national cause in limbo. How much sympathy will there be for a people who applauded when Hussein seized another country? Can the Palestine Liberation Organization regain lost friends in the Arab world who opposed Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait?
Still, Palestinians sing songs about Hussein, pledge to fight for him, criticize American-led attacks on his country. “You have to understand. We are under occupation. Only Saddam spoke for the Palestinians,” said Husseini.
Israeli officials are concerned that Palestinians will rise up in renewed revolt as the war over Kuwait continues. Such an uprising could interfere with Israel’s own military preparations. There is no indication as to when Israel might lift the broad curfew placed on the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians themselves hint that violence could erupt should Israel loosen its grip. “People are angry,” said a militant in Bethlehem. “If they have weapons, they will use them. If they don’t they will still take to the streets.”
Dissident anti-Hussein voices are few. One, Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem, condemns Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and believes that the missile attack on Israel has boosted Israel’s international standing at the expense of the Palestinians. “Trying to bomb Israel does not help Iraq or the Palestinians. It only makes Israel look heroic,” he said.
Palestinians can only benefit from the crisis after Iraq pulls out of Kuwait. Then, Freij surmises, the world might turn its attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and try to take it out of play in a volatile region.
“If there is going to be a new political order in the region, it must include us,” said Freij.