That Saddam Hussein’s execution at the hands of the Iraqi government was completely botched is no secret. That Saddam’s reputation among Arabs was “rehabilitated to some extent due to the grotesque handling of the killing is also a well known fact.
While the feelings of indignation will more than likely fade in the near future, what Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and US President George W. Bush have sown are the seeds of “sectarianism in Palestine. For the first time in modern history, the Palestinian people are moving toward a “sectarian conflict. Throughout the annals of the tumultuous Palestinian revolution, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as a reflection of Palestinian society at large, to a large extent succeeded in averting intra-Palestinian armed conflict.
There were the odd skirmishes between different factions in Jordan, Lebanon, and the Occupied Territories, with the 1983 Abu Musa insurrection within Fatah in the north of Lebanon the most severe to date. However, by and large Palestinian guns were not aimed in anger at other Palestinians. Being a generally homogeneous people, factional differences, while often severe, rarely contained the toxin seen in ethnic conflicts. So why would the death of an overthrown and basically irrelevant ex-dictator in Baghdad have such a negative effect on Palestinians? The execution in itself is only the clutch that seems to have set a dangerous precedent in gear.
By dying at the hands of a brutally sectarian Shiite government, remaining stoic and almost dignified in the face of taunts from his executioners, and chanting pro-Palestinian slogans together with traditional Islamic verses in his dying moments, Saddam deftly lit the match handed to him by Bush and Al-Maliki.
His actions and words at the gallows proved that he remained a master of manipulation even beyond the grave, shaming Washington’s ham-fisted public policy in the region. In the occupied Palestinian territories, where a lethal game of cat and mouse was being (and continues to be) played out between Fatah and the Hamas movement, Saddam’s execution on the holiest day in the Muslim calendar was greeted with shock.
Coming on the back of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s return from Iran, where he received a hero’s welcome and bags full of cash, many Palestinians, especially within Fatah, saw Hamas as a pawn of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and by extension Shiite Islam. All of a sudden, at Fatah rallies commemorating the 42nd anniversary of the Palestinian revolution, crowds would begin shouting “Shiites! Shiites! whenever Hamas was mentioned.
Even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas scolded those doing the shouting and ordered them to desist, he was basically ignored. The crowds stopped when they wanted to, and not when Abbas told them. At the same rallies, Abbas (whose speech in Ramallah was pro-unity and moderate) steadfastly refused to name Saddam along with the many martyrs of the Palestinian cause, despite repeated and aggressive calls from his supporters. It appeared sometimes as if Abbas was one of the few present who rejected outright any false sectarian undertones. One of the most disturbing facts of this phenomenon is that Shiites were never considered enemies of the Palestinians (with the notable exception of pre-Khomeini Iran or the Lebanese Amal Movement in the mid-1980s) and certainly not of the Palestinian cause.
Amal was despised for its hostile attacks on Beirut’s refugee camps in 1984-5, not because it was Shiite. While Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement that supplanted Amal, has been hailed as heroic throughout the Arab world, it appears that the war in Iraq and the supposed Hamas-Iran alliance have trumped even Palestinians’ seemingly unconditional love for Hassan Nasrallah. There is more than enough blame to go around for this slide to “sectarianism . By using “Shiite as a derogatory term, Fatah cadres are stoking fires that do not really exist but can nevertheless be inflammatory. Issues with Hamas must be dealt with in less offensive ways and it needs to be made clear by the Fatah leadership that this kind of noxious baiting from the rank and file will not be tolerated.
It not only adds a substantial portion of venom to any national dialogue, but will blow back at some point and burn the sender. There are more important and substantive issues to take Hamas to task for. Hamas’ leadership on the other hand must understand that putting all its eggs in the Iranian basket is unacceptable. The late PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, while making sometimes monumental mistakes, always understood the importance of the independent decision-making process.
He also raised enormous sums of money from Arab and Islamic countries, but he never allowed any of them to control the PLO. Hamas looks like a much paler shade of white in comparison to the ultimate wheeler and dealer Arafat. It doesn’t help that Hamas kingpin Khaled Meshaal is camped out in Syria, Iran’s best friend, issuing orders and influence in the Occupied Territories much as Arafat did from Tunis in the 1980s. Saddam Hussein is not responsible for “sectarianism in the Occupied Territories. His hanging however, when seen in the light of the prevalent chaos, has sent a lighting bolt of bad blood directly to Gaza and Ramallah.
Akram Baker is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skill, a global platform for Arab professionals. He is also an independent political analyst based in Ramallah and appears often on the BBC. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter publishing contending views of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.