Palestinian refugees embrace bin Laden
But not all are ready to absolve fugitive entirely of responsibility for U.S. attacks
By MARK MACKINNON, The Globe and Mail
BAKA REFUGEE CAMP, JORDAN -- The Osama bin Laden that Ahmed Salah believes he knows is a very different man from the one hunted by the West.
"He is a good man. He is a religious man," Mr. Salah said yesterday, standing outside his convenience store in this Palestinian refugee camp south of Amman. "Osama bin Laden helps build schools here, even secondary schools."
Mr. Salah's opinion is reflective of how many of the 250,000 refugees here see Mr. bin Laden. Most in the Baka camp look up to the Saudi-born dissident as one of the few supporters of the Palestinian cause who has the money and power to challenge Israel and the United States.
Most here also believe Mr. bin Laden had nothing to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- they say he has been framed by Israel in order to turn Washington against them.
"Osama bin Laden is a good Muslim. He works for the Palestinians against Israel," said another shopkeeper, who identified himself only as Youssuf. Many here are afraid to speak about the incident, fearing retribution from authorities.
Jordan, which is publicly backing the United States in its attempts to hunt down the terrorists behind last week's attacks, is trying to keep a lid on public support for Mr. bin Laden.
There are tales of police crackdowns in refugee areas on celebrations of the attacks and foreign journalists are required to seek official approval before visiting camps such as this one.
In a staged event Sunday night that was shown on televisions around the world, several hundred Jordanians gathered at the historic citadel atop one of Amman's seven hills for a multidenominational prayer ceremony for victims in New York and Washington. The event was organized by tourism officials, and attended mostly by the city's business class. A heavy police presence was on hand to deter anyone from spoiling the picture.
The mood in the refugee camps is vastly different. People here have been living in poverty for decades. Many are second- and third-generation refugees; hatred of Israel and its U.S. allies remains high.
Isam Dodre, a student working at a cellphone store in the camp, said the celebrations in some refugee areas were not to praise the attacks in the United States. Instead, he said, they were meant as a message to the United States that its policy of backing Israeli occupation of the West Bank is killing people as well.
Mr. Dodre said that although Amman backs U.S. efforts to hunt down Mr. bin Laden -- including a likely military strike against Afghanistan -- it does so without the support of many Jordanians.
"The leaders don't say what the people say. We don't like America. They are on the side of Israel. People here think Osama bin Laden is a very, very good man. His money gives him power to say no to America."
As Mr. Dodre speaks, a group gathers, nodding their heads in approval. To support his argument, a sheik walking by the store is waved in to add his opinion.
Unlike the others, Sheik Abdul Fatah leaves open the possibility that Mr. bin Laden could be involved in the attacks. He says there are two sides to the world's most wanted man.
"He and his family do many good things for Arab people. . . . But if Osama did this, then he is bad. The holy Koran does not allow for the killing of innocent people."
However, he said, many Muslims support Mr. bin Laden's cause in more general terms. "If America attacks Afghanistan, there will be many more Muslims who will hate America more than before."
Meanwhile, in Amman, the trial of a suspected member of Mr. bin Laden's al-Qaeda group resumed yesterday. Raed Mohammed Hijazi, a 32-year-old California-born Jordanian, appeared in State Security Court to face charges of plotting attacks against Bethlehem and other Christian and Western sites in the Middle East in late 1999.
Mr. Hijazi was convicted in absentia of the charges and sentenced to death. However, upon arrest, he exercised his right to appeal.
He is considered a suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors last year. He has pleaded innocent to that charge and denies knowing Mr. bin Laden.