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Palestinians Exhibit Mixed Reactions to September 11 - 2002-09-07

Like people everywhere, Palestinians were shocked by last year's terrorist attacks against the United States. While there is still sympathy for the losses suffered by the American people among some Palestinians, there is also a strong and growing anti-American sentiment in the streets of Palestinian areas.

Ask most Palestinians in this traditionally Arab section of Jerusalem about September 11 and they'll recall just what they were doing when they first heard the news. They'll also recall their reaction of shock and disbelief.

Nabil Feidy runs a popular foreign exchange shop on Salah Eddin Street. He says he remembers those initial television pictures. "Actually, I was at my dentist and thinking it was a movie or something and all of a sudden I saw the breaking news and I told my dentist to stop," he said. "I said look at the TV and it was the second airplane hitting the tower."

Pace: What did you think?

Feidy: I couldn't believe it, actually; one could never comprehend that such a thing could happen.

The initial shock was universal. But that feeling of shock did not necessarily mean that everyone here felt sympathy for Americans. Ibrahim is a 27-year-old Jerusalem taxi driver. He says he doesn't feel sorry for Americans. Ibrahim says he believes America got what it deserved. He says the United States is the source of sorrow in much of the world. "Not just Palestinians, but all Arabs and Muslims feel this way," he says.

Those views are not unique among Palestinians. Like many other Arabs, they are critical of the United States for what they see as its blind support for Israel and for allowing Israel to take any punitive action it wants against the Palestinians.

Despite Washington's assurances to the contrary, many Palestinians consider American military action in Afghanistan and now American threats against Iraq, as attacks against the Arab and Muslim world. They believe the United States wants to control the Middle East to remake the region to suit the Americans and Israelis.

Mahdi Abdel Haadi is a leading Palestinian academic. He says, largely because of these feelings toward America, popular Arab reaction to September 11 has been mixed. "The Palestinian street and the Arab street in general were saying now the Americans can see the pain and suffering we have been going through," he said. "And the second school of thought was saying this is a shock, this is unaccepted, this is unethical and this is a crime and without exaggeration, it is a terrorist act and we will not accept it."

Mr. Abdel Haadi says he was one of many Palestinian professionals and intellectuals who wrote letters to their American colleagues and friends to express sympathy and to share their grief.

But while some Palestinians took part in candlelight vigils and pro-American demonstrations, some other Palestinians danced in the streets to show their satisfaction at the attacks. While such displays were quickly disavowed by the Palestinian leadership, they do show the mixed feelings Palestinians have toward the attacks.

Businessman Nabil Feidy says one of the effects of September 11 attacks was to shift American policy even more toward Israel by portraying the Israelis as victims and the Palestinians as terrorists. "For the first time, America has been attacked at home," said Nabil Feidy. "For the first time, Americans feel they are victimized and that they have to take their revenge and in the process Israelis took advantage of this by … saying 'we have been suffering terrorism for so many years and now you know how it is' … this affects us [Palestinians] by allowing Israelis [to do] what they're doing without being questioned about it."

The past year has seen an increase in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an accompanying increase in anti-American sentiment among the Palestinian population. Mahdi Abdel Haadi says the post-September 11 messages from Washington are largely responsible for those feelings. "The first message was from the President [Bush] 'who is not with me is against me'. [That was] an arrogance of power, which is not acceptable," he said. "And, a 'crusade' message, which provoked people …. By the end of the day the Israelis are benefiting from the whole episode by warming up the media and American administration against the Palestinians. … It was a green light for Mr. Sharon's government to go ahead and crush the Palestinian identity and the Palestinian leadership in the name of a war against terrorism."

Mr. Abdel Haadi is not optimistic about the future of relations between Americans and Palestinians. He says if there is going to be an improvement, there will have to be a change in American attitudes. "It's not a question of what Palestinians should do," said Abdel Haadi. "It's a question of what America wants. Are the American people realizing they cannot isolate themselves from the globe and they should not see themselves as the only super power under the sun and they have to dictate to people their rights, how to eat, where to sleep and what to say? … The relationship today, it's ugly, it's unacceptable, it's one sided. If you want to look at the human dimension there is still hope that people are willing to open their hearts and minds and to share things."

Down on Salah Eddin Street, Nabil Feidy agrees. He says Palestinians don't hate Americans; they just hate American policy. "Palestinians love Americans, love what America stands for, love what Americans believe in," he said. "Palestinians do differentiate between an American administration and the American people. Most Palestinians have visited the United States; a lot of Palestinians are American [citizens], they know that American people, as a whole, are very decent people. But the policy of the administration is a very biased one."

And, like many Palestinians, Nabil Feidy does not believe Washington's attitude toward them will change any time soon.