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Crisis in Yugoslavia

In Arab World, Emotions Are Mixed

Response: Many sympathize with fellow Muslim ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. But they condemn U.S.-led aerial assault.

April 08, 1999|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMALLAH, West Bank — In support of Kosovo Albanians, hundreds of Islamic militants rallied outside a Nablus university the other day, burning Serbian flags with relish. But at the same time, speakers at the protest heaped scorn on the United States for, in their view, attempting to bomb the world into submission.

And therein lies the problem for many Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East as they watch, with sometimes contradictory emotions, the U.S.-led NATO war against Yugoslavia.

An anguished desire to see help provided to the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, most of whom are Muslim, collides with suspicion, mistrust and outright condemnation of big-power bombing of an isolated country, especially here among a population dedicated to opposing U.S. attacks on Iraq.

In contrast to the outpouring of grief, aid and, eventually, weapons for Bosnian Muslims besieged by Serbs beginning in 1992, the response now to a similar Serbian onslaught against ethnic Albanians has been confused, muted and slow.

People tend to see tragedy through the prism of their past. It is no different here in the West Bank, where many compare the Kosovo Albanians' plight to their own nakba, the 1948 "catastrophe" when Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes by Israeli forces claiming a new state.

But praising the actions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is another matter.

"We were refugees, kicked out of our homes, and 50 years later we are still scattered everywhere," Salomon Ali Hussein, owner of a mom-and-pop restaurant in Ramallah, said as he made vegetable sandwiches. "NATO bombing just makes it worse for everyone. The United States wants to show she's the leader of the world and controls everything."

Hussein, 67, lived in the United States for years and even joined the U.S. Navy, serving with the 6th Fleet. Yet he and most Palestinians suspect that there are ulterior motives behind Washington's actions. Few see "defending Muslims" as one of the motives, ulterior or otherwise.

Elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic world, there has been condemnation of Yugoslavia. Jordan and Egypt withdrew their ambassadors from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. The imam at Jerusalem's historic Al Aqsa mosque denounced the Yugoslav "war of extermination," while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran sent blankets, food and other supplies to ethnic Albanian refugees. The Organization of the Islamic Conference called an emergency meeting.

Iraq, on the other hand, offered messages of solidarity for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Iraqi newspapers warned that "this Clinton adventure is doomed to failure." In some quarters, praise has been heard for the very Serbs who are killing Muslims, because at least they are standing up to the United States.

The Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat, its hands full with diplomatic maneuvering over whether to declare an independent state next month, has yet to condemn the atrocities being committed against Kosovo Albanians, though it did offer to send aid.

In editorials, the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds gave faint praise to NATO for attempting to punish the Serbs of Yugoslavia--"the operation no doubt had its justifications"--but also leveled blame at the Western alliance for the worsening plight of the ethnic Albanians. And in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, hundreds of students marched through the dusty streets chanting, "Stop the massacres! Stop the evacuations!" while also accusing the U.S. and NATO of deliberately endangering the Kosovo Albanians.

To outsiders, Kosovo Albanians may not be as readily identifiable with the Muslim world as, say, the Bosnians, whose president, Alija Izetbegovic, is well known in Islamic circles. The Albanians' best-known leader, Ibrahim Rugova, may be a Muslim, but it's a picture of Mother Teresa that decorates his Pristina office.

Some Muslims saw the Bosnian conflict, rightly or wrongly, as a direct attempt by Christian Orthodox Serbs to quash resurgent Islam, a crusade that the world largely tolerated for more than three years. It is impossible to define the battle for the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, however, in strictly religious terms, since NATO has sided against a state that claims Christian values.

All of this is a bit confusing for Arabs who are accustomed to chiding the U.S. for the double standard perceived when it permits some countries, such as Israel, to violate international agreements while punishing others, such as Iraq, for similar breaches.

"Now they see the Americans attacking a Western Christian country, and that doesn't fit into the stereotype," said Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib.

Or, as Youssef Salim, a perplexed grocer from a Palestinian refugee camp near Ramallah, put it:

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