Palestinian refugees celebrate in streets
By PAUL ADAMS
With a report from Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
TEL AVIV -- Street celebrations broke out in Palestinian communities in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Lebanon yesterday at news of the terrorist attacks in the United States. But almost as quickly, Palestinian political leaders rushed to condemn the carnage and to distance their organizations from any involvement.
Meanwhile, Israel closed its air space to foreign planes and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his country will send emergency medical teams to the United States to aid in the recovery effort.
In Lebanon, men wearing military fatigues paraded through the streets of the Ein el-Hilweh refugee camp, firing rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the air. Some residents interrupted their afternoon siestas, still dressed in their pyjamas, to rush into the streets and cheer.
There were similar scenes in other Palestinian camps in Lebanon as well as a number of West Bank cities. In Nablus, a crowd of about 2,000 people gathered and drivers honked their horns in jubilation.
"Bin Laden, bomb Tel Aviv!" some cried, referring to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who is thought to have been behind previous terrorist attacks.
A young Palestinian gunman named Mustafa said: "I feel I am in a dream. I never believed that one day the United States would come to pay a price for its support to Israel."
In Gaza City, however, Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, appeared shaken when he spoke to a television news crew. He condemned what he called a "terrible act." "We are completely shocked, completely shocked, unbelievable," Mr. Arafat said. "I present my condolences to the American people and to [U.S.] President [George] Bush and his government, not only in my name but in the name of all the Palestinian people."
Many of the Palestinian groups responsible for recent terror attacks in Israel denied any connection to events in the United States. However, they were more equivocal than Mr. Arafat in their condemnation. As recently as last month, a spokesman for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine called for strikes on U.S. interests after the Israelis assassinated their leader, known as Abu Ali Mustafa.
However, speaking on behalf of the DFLP in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday, Qais Abedel Rahim denied a news report that his organization was connected to the attack.
"We deny our responsibility," he said. "But we call upon the American administration to review their attitudes and their policy toward the Palestinian question because this policy arouses the anger and the hatred of our people and of all Arab and Islamic peoples."
Similarly, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for several recent suicide bombings in Israel, said yesterday, "We are against the killing of innocent people." But he too suggested that U.S. policy in the Middle East had opened the door to violence.
The Israeli government responded quickly to the news from the United States, closing its airports to all foreign traffic and putting its air force on high alert. Israeli police said that they were reinforcing security around U.S. installations in the country. Israel's missions abroad were evacuated or reduced to a sentinel staff.
Mr. Sharon cancelled his planned schedule for the day and rushed to contact the Bush administration to express his condolences. His office said the Israeli government was scrambling emergency medical teams to head to the United States. The Israelis provided similar assistance when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were the target of bomb attacks in August of 1998.
The Israeli Minister of Defence, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who cancelled a planned visit to Washington, hinted that the attack was carried out by Islamic terrorists.
"The threat of radical Islam is the central threat to the free world," he said.
However, Israeli intelligence sources were clear that for a number of reasons they did not believe the culprits were likely to be Palestinian. First of all, the scale and organization required were beyond that which Palestinian groups have demonstrated in the past. More important, they said that Palestinian groups usually intend their violence to be used as leverage to achieve their political goals. Enraging the Americans seems an improbable tactic for advancing the cause of Palestinian independence, they suggested.
"The organization that carried it out must have very good infrastructure and extreme hatred for the United States," said Professor Ariel Murari of the University of Tel Aviv. "I would say that the organization that did it should be one that views the world in Armageddon terms."
Like most Israeli experts, Prof. Murari said the attacks had the hallmarks of Mr. bin Laden's Afghanistan-based organization, or one like it, rather than Palestinian militants.