- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Taped onto Mohammed Shkukani’s living-room wall is a poster of Jerusalem’s golden Dome of the Rock mosque with a picture superimposed of a young man dressed military fatigues in front of a Palestinian flag.

It is a shrine to his son, 24-year old Amer Shkukani, who blew himself up a year ago in a suicide attack that injured three Israelis in Tel Aviv.

Palestinian militants of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade dispatched the young man, but it was deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein who saw to it that his family of 11 was compensated.

Operating through a Palestinian branch of the Ba’ath Party called the Arab Liberation Front, the Iraqi government paid the Shkukanis $25,000, as it had other families of suicide bombers over the preceding months.

“Saddam Hussein stood beside us at a time that no other government did,” said Mr. Shkukani. “In my opinion, no one else helped the Palestinian people. Iraq was the only donor country helping the martyrs’ families.”

That’s over now. With the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, the flow of an estimated $30 million to Palestinian families has ended. The last payment came a week before the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While the public relations effect of the payments overshadowed the minor contribution to the Palestinian economy, the loss of Iraqi support underlines the narrowing circle of outside backers for Palestinian militants.

“When an Arab regime that is known to support the Palestinian cause falls, it weakens the Palestinian national struggle,” said Wassel Abu Yusef of the Palestinian Liberation Front, whose leader — Achille Lauro hijacker Abu Abbas — was captured in Iraq last month.

“This support helped the Palestinian people and the martyrs’ families to continue the struggle against the Israelis,” he said.

With annual per capita income in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at less than $850, the Iraqi payouts were a windfall for the bereaved families.

Mr. Shkukani, a retired local employee of the United Nations, said the $25,000 has been exhausted since the money was divvied up among the nine surviving siblings, including university tuition for a sister living in Youngstown, Ohio.

Not all relatives of the Palestinian dead received as handsome compensation as the Shkukanis. Only the families of the suicide bomber families got the $25,000 sum, reflecting their lofty status among Palestinians.

Unarmed Palestinian civilians and militants killed by the Israeli army were only eligible for $10,000 from Iraq. Those injured in the uprising got smaller sums.

The aid was disbursed by branches of the Arab Liberation Front operating in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

The ALF organized distribution ceremonies and invited local and foreign correspondents to cover the demonstration of Iraqi-Palestinian solidarity, which made headlines in the months leading up to the war.

Last Monday, the black iron gate at the entrance of ALF’s office in Ramallah was padlocked, even as a door was left open to reveal a wall clock with a head shot of Saddam Hussein. Employees of the neighboring Palestinian Liberation Front said the skeleton staff of ALF spends little time in the office now.

Apart from the publicity surrounding ALF’s charity, the party drew few activists and had negligible political influence. The Ba’ath Party branch was isolated, remaining independent of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority and incompatible with religious groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Indeed, many say the money was little more than a symbol, a tool for Saddam Hussein to demonstrate his support for the Palestinians to Iraqis and the Arab world.

“For sure, Saddam Hussein wanted media propaganda through his assistance to these families,” said Hazam Al-Ahmed, a former Palestinian Liberation Organization ambassador to Baghdad. He said relations between the Palestinian leadership and Saddam had not been close.

The ambassador lamented the attention given to the Iraqi payments, saying it was ultimately exploited by Israel against the Palestinians. “Anyone thinking that the intifada is [continuing] because of this money is wrong,” he said.

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