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Jewish Journal

Capture Stirs Mixed Mideast Reactions

by Dan Baron

December 18, 2003 | 7:00 pm

After surviving the Holocaust and five Middle East wars, Ze'ev is a hard man to impress. But news of Saddam Hussein's capture Sunday managed to move the Israeli retiree to tears.

"It is good to see Israel a little bit safer," Ze'ev said in his hometown of Ramat Gan, as footage of the Iraqi tyrant-turned-prisoner played on television screens at roadside snack stands. Ramat Gan, where Iraqi Jewish emigres settled en masse in the 1950s, ironically was a main target of Saddam's Scud missiles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

 The capture of the only Arab leader to perpetrate an unanswered strike against the Jewish State generated an upbeat reaction in Israel, buoying the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and resonating at the Defense Ministry.

"The capture of the Iraqi dictator is additional proof that the policies of the free world, led by U.S. President George W. Bush, are determined to bring to justice all terrorists responsible for killing, destruction and anarchy," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz wrote in a telegram to his U.S. counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also phoned Bush to offer congratulations.

The Arab leaders who still battle Israel were more circumspect. While Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a longtime a Saddam ally, mulled an official reaction to the news of the capture in Tikrit, Hamas and Islamic Jihad cautioned the West not to rejoice too soon.

"The Americans need to be the lords of the world by eradicating all resistance against them," said Adnan Asfour, a Hamas leader in the West Bank. "I say to the Iraqi people: Observe what the Palestinian people do. Our leaders are assassinated and arrested every day by the Israeli occupiers, and that does not stop us from continuing our fight."

In the Gaza Strip border town of Rafah, which sees almost daily fighting between Palestinian gunrunners and Israeli troops, a rally to mark the 16th anniversary of Hamas quickly became a show of support for Saddam. Children bore posters showing Saddam in better days: uniformed, smiling, an unabashed patron of the Palestinian cause.

Israeli strategic experts agreed that while a quick trial and sentencing for Saddam might calm Iraq, it was unlikely to affect the Palestinian front. Terrorist attacks against Israel continued, even though Saddam's payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers stopped after he was deposed in March.

Unlike Saddam, Arafat still enjoys the status of international statesman in most places except Washington.

"What amazes me," said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "is that Saddam can now sit in shackles for his support of terrorism, while archterrorist Arafat remains free."

Some experts warned of a surge in violence by pan-Arab nationalists keen to show they are not cowed by the loss of a major figurehead.

"Those normal citizens who have taken up arms against the Americans in Iraq and the Islamist extremists who have flocked to help them might well put up a last fight," said Jacky Hugi, Arab affairs correspondent for Israel's daily Ma'ariv.

The parallels between the Iraqi and Palestinian fronts resonated recently with revelations that Israel was exporting its hard-learned counterterrorist tactics to U.S. forces operating in Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the news initially was greeted with disbelief. But as the news was confirmed, many expressed joy that Saddam would never return to power in Iraq. Others seemed disappointed that he had not fought back against his U.S. captors.

In Yemen, one man said he had expected Saddam to fight back. "I expected him to resist or commit suicide before falling into American hands," said teacher Mohammed Abdel Qader Mohammadi, 50. "He disappointed a lot of us. He's a coward."  

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