There is no doubt that the arrest of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein marks an important turning point for Iraq and the American led occupation of this strategic Arab country. But the question that needs to be answered is how will this important event affect the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
For sure many Palestinians have invested for better or worse placed over the years a lot of emotional mileage on this one man. Living in a depressive and oppressive state for so long where the balance of forces is clearly not in their favor, Palestinians have always looked outside for help in shifting this balance. They tried the Soviet Union, they tried the UN and it failed, they placed their hopes in various Arab leaders all to no avail until Saddam Hussein appeared on stage. He said the right words, his country a rich and strategically powerful country had stood by Palestinians since 1948 with troops. Iraq provided free higher education for Palestinians and gave housing and social privileges to Palestinians living in Iraq. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, many hailed this move as a possible contributor to the shake up of the Arab leaders, especially in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in order to get them to genuinely help the Palestinians. And when Saddam made true on his threats to attack Israel, he was quickly applauded as the first Arab leader who didn’t restrict his support with lip service.
When Al Aqsa intifada began, the Iraqi leader continued supporting Palestinians despite the siege and economic deprivation that his country was facing from the US and the world community. Representatives of the Palestinian chapter of the Baath party were seen visiting the homes of Palestinians killed in the intifada and giving checks in the amount of $10,000 to the family of every Palestinian killed by Israelis (and not only to every suicide bomber as is mistakenly reported).
All this created an image of Saddam much larger than real life. No one wanted to believe that Baghdad fell to the Americans that easily. And when the resistance began to hurt the occupiers, the image of Saddam again grew in the minds of Palestinians who began to compare themselves and their resistance to Israel to the efforts of the Iraqi resistance against the American occupiers.
None of this blind support was logical. Most Palestinians realized that they had been duped. The scuds against Israel in 1991 while making a lot of noise caused little damage and almost no deaths (one Israeli woman died from a related cause). They could see that the five million strong Jerusalem army was not really intended to liberate Palestine. They were able to understand the level of suffering that he was causing to his own people and the corruption of his authority and its dictatorial ways. But a sinking Palestinian community wanted to clutch on any straw. And as in any courtship the emotion of love often blinds a person from all other facts, so was the adoration that Palestinians had for Saddam and therefore the frustration about what happened to him.
Outwardly many Palestinians tried to put a strong face. We are not so angry at what happened to him as we are angry at the Americans for what they did, was a sentiment many expressed. Others said that they wish that the fate of Saddam Hussein had been at the hands of his own people rather than at the hands of the occupiers. But the real sentiment was that of hurt and humiliation. When pushed most felt angry and betrayed at the way Saddam Hussein was arrested and portrayed on television with a young American medic combing his hair and opening his mouth for DNA samples. For Palestinians the issue of dignity is still a fundamental one. A friend of mine told me it reminded him of his feelings when the Israelis were attacking Arafat at the Muqata’a. I don’t like Arafat, he told me, but when the Israelis tried to humiliate him I wanted to go out in the streets in the defense of our president.
The trial of Saddam Hussein as a war criminal will be a good opportunity to demonstrate to many Arabs what the fate of those that oppress their own people.
But the more important fact is that Saddam Hussein’s arrest and detention undoubtedly ends a charade that has given false hope to many Palestinians that their salvation will come from the outside. It will no doubt double the effort for Palestinians to depend on themselves and the justice of their cause to ride of the occupation that has preoccupied this part of the world for too long.