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Last weekend, Palestinian political cartoonist Omayya Joha of Gaza depicted the funeral of the eight Palestinians who were killed in the recent Israel Defense Forces action in Rafah. In the cartoon, they are carried on the shoulders of their friends and above them is the label: "The Palestinian dead." Next to them, carried on a stretcher, like someone being taken for burial, is another corpse, above which is written: "The Arab conscience."

The publication of this cartoon expresses, almost certainly, the feelings that were prevalent last week among the Palestinian public with respect to two events: the large number of Palestinian dead in IDF actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (23 dead, including those killed in the assassination action against an Islamic Jihad leader) and the attempt to harm Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher during his visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In the Palestinian public consciousness, these two events are linked. "At a time when the Israeli occupation is slaughtering Palestinians every single day, the Arab regimes are standing by and doing nothing," wrote Khafez Barghouti, the editor of the Palestinian Authority organ Al Hayat Al Jedida. And he continued: "The outcry of Rafah was heard by no one."

The foreign minister of Egypt is perhaps not a typical representative of the Arab regimes, but he is the most senior Arab diplomat to have visited Israel, including Jerusalem, during the recent period. He refrained from visiting Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and the PA, and met only with senior Israeli government officials, headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It was on this background that he was attacked at Al-Aqsa. Israel's security forces and their Palestinian counterparts were quick to lay the blame for the attack on a few extremist Muslim activists - people of the Tahrir (Liberation) Party - who burst out screaming and threw shoes at him. But there were other worshipers also present at Al-Aqsa, some of whom joined in the outburst against the Egyptian foreign minister. In other words, the impression that emerges is that in the Palestinian street there is a fair amount of support for those who attacked Maher.

A cowardly attack

Today too, nearly a week after Maher was attacked, the incident is disturbing many in the Palestinian public - and especially members of the leadership. On the one hand, in recent days many statements harshly condemning the "criminal and cowardly" attack have been published. These were issued by public figures and institutions like the mayor of Gaza City and the members of the city council, the governor of Khan Yunis, labor unions, Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi (who in 1991 headed the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid conference), public leaders from East Jerusalem, commercial companies and notables of the Al Sana Bedouin tribe in the Negev. On the other hand, many have seconded Maher himself, who said that the incident was marginal and unimportant. "This is an incident that does not merit any attention," declared Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's national security advisor. Others have said that it was a stupid incident.

But no one has really related to it as a stupid and unimportant incident. On the contrary. Last Wednesday, Arafat sent a high-level delegation to Cairo in order to express apologies for the incident. It was headed by Farouk Kaddoumi, the head of the Palestine Liberation organization's diplomatic department, and he was joined by Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath, national security advisor Rajoub and others.

All of the Palestinian political factions have published statements strongly condemning the attack, but in these statements there was also implied criticism of Egypt. Nafez Azzam, a leader of Islamic Jihad, said: "There is not justification for the attack that took place inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, even if some Palestinians oppose Maher's meeting with the Israelis." Jamil Majdalawi of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said: "It doesn't matter what interpretation is given to Maher's visit to Al-Aqsa - there is no justification for harming him."

There has been only one Arab spokesman (of Palestinian origin) who has had the guts to make explicit statements justifying those who attacked the Egyptian minister. This is Abed al-Bari Atwan, the editor of the newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, which is published in London. "The shoes that were thrown at the head of Mr. Ahmed Maher, the Egyptian foreign minister, during his visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque are a lesson to all the leaders of the Arab countries and their representatives, who scorn the Arab street," he wrote after the incident. Further on, Atwan accused the Egyptian foreign minister of having worked against the members of his own people by meeting with Sharon, who has humiliated the Egyptians on more than one occasion. He also warns Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) not to continue his preparations for a meeting with Sharon, as in that case the same thing will happen to him.

Scenes of horror

It is possible that Qureia read Atwan's warning and it is possible that he did not. In any case, his spokesman stated last week that for the moment they are postponing the meeting with Sharon. The reason, they say, is the IDF attack on Rafah. Presumably Qureia is reading correctly the mood among the Palestinian public, where feelings of hostility towards Israel, frustration and bitterness are surging.

Anyone who follows daily events in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and reads the Palestinian press finds it difficult to comprehend the scenes of horror. The nearly regularly-occurring photographs of bleeding babies and children in the arms of screaming mothers and of elderly people fleeing from their bombed houses in Rafah, Khan Yunis and Balata. Parents dangling their children from balconies to enable them to flee to safety. Tall buildings that have collapsed and heaps of rubble between which people try to gather their household goods. And the flood of reports and complaints of humiliations. Every day on the front pages of the Palestinian newspapers there are pictures of mass funerals and shackled young people, standing in line with their hands up, young men being led away blindfolded, or curled up on the ground with IDF soldiers standing over them, rifles at the ready.

In an atmosphere like this, says a Palestinian journalist from East Jerusalem, Maher should be saying thank you for having escaped with light injuries from his attackers at Al-Aqsa. The Palestinian spokesmen ridiculed the statements published on behalf of Sharon to the effect that Israel will not sign a truce agreement with the terror organizations - but if quiet is maintained, Israel will refrain from attacking them. "Sharon kept the promises in Rafah," scoffed the East Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds. Cabinet member Saeb Erekat declared that the IDF incursions into the territories are aimed at destroying any attempt to revive the peace process.

In the West Bank and Gaza there is huge anger at the Israeli actions, and this has been joined by anger at the Arab world, which has hardly done anything to protect its Palestinian brethren.