GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – About 2,000 Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza on Tuesday to express support for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, as rally organizers distributed checks from him to the families of Palestinians killed in clashes with the Israeli army.
Leaders of the Arab Liberation Front, the local chapter of Saddam's Baath party, which organized the demonstration, delivered $10,000 checks to the families of 36 people killed by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip over the last three months, said ALF leader Ibrahim Zannen. Palestinians call the dead "martyrs."
Israel is supporting the United States as it seriously considers a military strike against Iraq for allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction. During the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel. Under U.S. pressure, Israel did not strike back.
On Tuesday, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said Saddam will probably attack Israel in response to a U.S. strike on Iraq, in which case Israel would retaliate "for certain." He said he based his assessment on the evaluation of Israel's military chiefs.
In the Gaza demonstration, led by Hamas, marchers carrying pictures of Saddam, vowed to support the Iraqi leader if the United States carries out a broad military action against him.
"We, the Palestinian people, are standing with Iraq and its people in front of the American offensive. We are one body," said Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, who made a rare public appearance at the rally. Yassin, a quadriplegic, is said to be in failing health.
"Our people and the people of Iraq will not accept the aggression, and we will face this aggression with our blood," said Yassin. "We will fight for our honor and our dignity."
Yassin also condemned U.S. support for Israel, saying Palestinians were united against Israel "in the resistance trench." He called on Americans to reject the policies of President Bush that are "against Arabs and Muslims," and urged them to stop giving support to Israel.
"They should know that we are against the occupation and we are fighting to liberate our land and to end the occupation," he said. Hamas has been responsible for dozens of suicide bombing attacks in Israel, but all originated from the West Bank, because Gaza is closed off by a security fence.
In the spring, the Iraqi leader increased money for the relatives of suicide bombers from $10,000 to $25,000, drawing sharp criticism from Washington. Palestinians say the bombers are driven by a thirst for revenge, religious zeal and dreams of glory -- not greed.