Palestinian Tribulations from Jerusalem’s al Aqsa to Baghdad

Cairo is still fuming over the “flying shoe ambush” to which Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher was treated when he tried to pray Monday, December 12, at al Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Mubarak regards the assault as a spiteful rejoinder from Yasser Arafat for the Egyptian minister’s failure to call on him in Ramallah. Since the incident, Palestinian delegations have been rushing to the Egyptian capital to grovel. debkafile‘s Palestinian sources report Cairo is not buying the show of remorse and Arafat has been told that the photos of a panic-stricken Maher may have faded from the news pages, but remain very vivid in Egyptian minds.
Moreover, Egypt has put a hard question to Arafat: Two separate security teams stand guard inside the mosque around the clock – one posted by the Wakf Muslim religious authority that administers the mosques on Temple Mount and one deployed by the Palestinian leader’s own Fatah group. “Where were they when our foreign minister needed them?” Egyptian officials asked Arafat. “Why was it left to Israeli security to rescue him?”
Cairo entertains a strong suspicion that there was more in the affair that meets the eye. Hints have been dropped that either the two teams had advance knowledge of the attack and orders not to intervene or, worse, Arafat and the Palestinian authorities have abandoned control of al-Aqsa mosque to radical Muslims.
The implications of this allegation, especially when it emanates from a top Arab leader’s presidential palace are too serious to be taken lightly and therefore elicited from Ramallah hasty damage control to prevent its public airing. It means very simply this: If the Palestinian Liberation Organization has forfeited control of Islam’s third holiest site, it is incapable of guarding the interests of the Arab world – or even its own. So why should an Arab government make any efforts on the Palestinians’ behalf?
The Palestinian case was also downgraded on another diplomatic front, at the meeting Wednesday, December 12 between Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Syrian leader Bashar Assad in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. debkafile‘s Middle Eastern sources report that Assad complained bitterly that his attempts to persuade Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to join him for peace talks had run into a blank wall.
“He doesn’t even bother to answer me,” Assad lamented. “I sent him at least three messages recently and he says nothing. I even offered to accept a return to the June 4, 1967 lines and drop any demand for a mutual reduction of forces. I said we could separate the Palestinian issue from the Syrian-Israel process and leave it out altogether. What else can I offer the man?” Assad asked.
Our sources report that Mubarak simply held out his hands and told Assad, welcome to the club.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I sent my foreign minister to Jerusalem and even agreed to leave Arafat out of the visit. I indicated to Sharon that I endorse your proposition of bilateral talks without involving the Palestinian problem. But he made no response to Maher. The man simply says nothing.”
debkafile‘s political sources call Sharon the silent man. Even when vice premier Ehud Olmert practically boasts of the prime minister’s support for his own sweeping West Bank withdrawal plan, Sharon neither confirms nor gainsays the assertion.
Many senior officials in Jerusalem think Sharon is carrying his silent routine too far. One told debkafile: “The Americans have raised some pressing issues and they expect answers. But Sharon stays mum even to Washington. Maybe he is on the brink of making new decisions and is not yet ready to make them public.”
The Palestinians, therefore, are confronted with Mubarak’s rancor, Assad’s willingness to ditch them (he recently told American visitors to Damascus that the Palestinians entered into peace talks in Oslo and launched two uprisings without consulting Syria) and uncertainties in Jerusalem. In post-Saddam Iraq, their situation is tricky.
Some 140,000 Palestinians live in Baghdad along the eastern bank of the Euphrates, most concentrated on Haifa Street. Times were good when Saddam Hussein was in charge, and Palestinians were among his biggest supporters. The former Iraqi leader used them as middlemen for overseas business deals and treated them as a loyal elite.
Now they are paying the price. More and more Iraqis want to deport them and seize their property. Jordan, according to our sources, has spurned approaches to take them in. They are regarded with suspicion by the US civil administration and military commanders.
And now, according to debkafile‘s military sources, a Palestinian is found to have taken part in a suicide bombing on December 11 in the city of Ramadi. The bombers gained entry to the headquarters of the US 82nd Airborne Division disguised as deliverymen bringing furniture to the base. A U.S. soldier was killed and 14 wounded in the explosion.

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