AP News

Palestinians not worried by Israel-Iran war


RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — While neighboring Israel nervously braces for the possibility of war with arch-enemy Iran, Palestinians are greeting the crisis with a yawn.

Opinions about the international showdown over Iran's burgeoning nuclear program are mixed, but Palestinians largely don't see themselves a party to the conflict and don't expect to be drawn into any violence — even though two decades ago Iraqi missiles toward Israel sent them scurrying for cover too.

"We haven't discussed war scenarios simply because we don't expect any war," said Azzam Al-Ahmed, an aide to President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. "The U.S. is not willing to attack Iran and Israel won't dare attack a strong country like Iran."

That remains to be seen.

Israel believes that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb, and has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if it thinks that is the only way to prevent the Iranians from building a weapon. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has expressed skepticism over international efforts to halt the Iranians through diplomacy and economic sanctions.

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat to its very existence, citing calls by Iranian leaders for Israel's destruction, Iran's sophisticated missile arsenal and Iranian support for hostile militant groups on Israel's northern and southern borders. Iran, for its part, claims its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.

Iranian commanders have said that an Israeli airstrike would draw an Iranian missile counterattack.

Experts believe such a scenario could involve either Iran firing its long-range Shihab missiles at Israeli population centers or acting via local proxies of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza or even groups in Syria. Military intelligence estimates that Israel's enemies now have some 200,000 rockets and missiles aimed at it.

As part of its preparations, Israel has deployed mobile rocket-defense systems and beefed up its civil-defense infrastructure, with large public bomb shelters, public safety drills and handing out gas masks to its citizens. The possibility of war dominates water-cooler conversations, radio programs and evening newscast.

Just a few miles away in the West Bank, the mood is far different. Palestinian officials have not taken any steps to protect the public, due to a combination of denial, lack of budget funds and in some quarters, satisfaction if Israel is attacked.

Many Palestinians sympathize with Iran and say they would be pleased if Iran develops atomic weapons, noting that Israel is believed to possess a nuclear arsenal of its own.

"Why does Israel only have the right to possess nuclear weapons?" said Ahmed Muhsin, a 22-year-old university student in Ramallah. "Iran has the right too, and I think Iran will be the country to defeat Israel one day and kick it out of our land."

Sympathy alone won't provide protection. In 1991, some Palestinians cheered from their rooftops as Saddam Hussein's missiles flew overhead toward Israel during the first Gulf War. But some of the rudimentary Scud missiles went wayward and landed in the West Bank as well.

"The Palestinians are not part of the war, therefore they are not expecting any attacks on them," said Hani Masri, a writer for the Al-Ayyam daily newspaper. "But it could happen by mistake and some missiles could fall into West Bank, therefore the Palestinian leadership should take some measures particularly in the areas close to the border with Israel."

Palestinian officials said they have taken no special measures and said they would not ask Israel for help either. At a recent high-level meeting to discuss strategic issues, the Iranian threat wasn't even mentioned. Israeli officials said they have had no contact with the Palestinians about civil defense in case of Iran.

"We don't have the Iron Dome (rocket defense) like Israel, and we don't have shelters and gas masks. If anything happens we will be the victims. But at the same time, we have the will to help our people," said Adnan Damiri, spokesman for the Palestinian security forces.

Some critics have even developed a macabre fatalism. "It's better if we and the Israelis die together rather than live under their occupation," said Maher Ali, a 42-year-old vendor in Ramallah.

Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. While it has relinquished some control to the Palestinian Authority, Israel retains ultimate say in the West Bank. Israel remains the final arbiter for Palestinians there who often can't travel, trade or even build homes without Israeli permission.

In the Gaza Strip, ruled by Iranian-backed Hamas militants, the situation is trickier. Loyalties there are strongly aligned with Iran, but it remains unclear if and how militants will intervene and risk being dragged into another confrontation with Israel.

Hamas has said it will not get involved in fighting between Israel and Iran unless the Palestinians are attacked. Islamic Jihad, a smaller, Iranian-backed militant group has not said what it will do.

Nafez Azzam, a top leader in Islamic Jihad, said an Israeli strike on Iran "will be a crazy adventure that would ignite the whole region."


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