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The Middle East

In Egypt, Sympathy for Palestinians Revives Hatred

April 22, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — One recent morning, as the students at a private school in a well-appointed suburb of this capital lined up for roll call, two of their teachers stepped into the schoolyard and torched a drawing of the Israeli flag--to the cheers of children and faculty alike.

That was supposed to be a lesson in empowerment, a demonstration that anger and frustration can be vented, that even schoolchildren can express outrage. The students at the Modern Education School in Katameya Heights also wrote letters to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to President Bush, like this one by 8-year-old Mohammed Amr Fadel:

"Killing Palestinians will not do anything. Don't think that they cannot feel like everyone feels. Please stop killing them. They're people like us."

Israel argues that it undertook its military operation in the West Bank for self-protection, to root out terrorists. But the offensive has not been seen that way here in one of the most moderate Arab countries, the first to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state and the first to say that even in the current environment, there will be no war unless its own territory is attacked.

There are not two sides to the story in Egypt. There is only one: the Palestinian side. From all walks of life, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, young and old, people here talk openly of their hatred for Israel. Many say that they always hated the Jewish state, that they accepted it only out of resignation, feeling there was little else they could do. Their hate was packed up and stored away like a favorite sweater that didn't fit anymore.

Now it is out of the box, and if 18 months of Palestinian-Israeli bloodletting did not let it out, the Israeli offensive in the West Bank surely did.

"Everybody talks about it," said Ghada Shiwick, 36, a third-grade English and science teacher at the school in Katameya Heights. "We had to do something to let off steam, to teach them they can do something, they don't have to sit and suffer."

So the students wrote their letters. This one came from first-grader Ahmed Maze: "Dear Mr. Sharon, If you don't stop killing, we will kill you and if you kill Yasser Arafat, we will kill your army."

Presidents and kings, prime ministers and emirs across the Arab region have talked about the danger America faces if it does not find a way to rein in Israel. Those with close ties to the United States have not warned of a wider war, not immediately. Instead, they have spoken of a drastic psychological shift, one more capable of undermining peace efforts than any Scud missile shot by Iraq.

It seems they were right. If there was a widespread, if grudging, acceptance in the region that Israel could someday coexist peacefully with all its Arab neighbors, that appears gone. If there was a feeling that America was trying to be fair, that also seems to have disappeared.

"I must stress," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said recently, "that the . . . policies of the Israeli government will not achieve the goal it is seeking--security--but rather the opposite is true."

Mubarak knows his people.

Milad Hanna is a well-known member of the Coptic Christian community in Cairo. He has served in parliament and at times acted as an ambassador trying to help bridge the tense divide between Egypt's Muslim majority and its Christian minority. Four years ago, he wrote a book called "Acceptance of the Other." The idea was to promote harmony between all peoples. That included Israelis and Egyptians, Muslims and Jews.

Now he is refusing to allow his publisher to reprint the book.

"My feeling is that theory is crap," Hanna said in an interview. "Everyone is angry, including me. Israel is getting to be a fascist, Nazi state. I am 77 years old, and I am willing to carry a gun, to die. My feelings have changed. My dream was broken."

Hanna says that Israel, with U.S. complicity, has radicalized the masses and moved the average Arab to accept the concept of fighting America and its Jewish allies, he said.

Indeed, there is anger everywhere. Some say it is a reflection of the difficult circumstances that exist in most Arab countries, where unemployment is rampant, prospects for the future bleak and frustration with the Arab community's inability to help the Palestinians palpable. Others say it was born of the humiliation felt by the Arab world after its defeat by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.

Whatever its cause, television news footage keeps it alive, hour after hour, on the Al Jazeera satellite network, with images of houses flattened and of people maimed and killed.

There have been demonstrations at college campuses around the region. In Jordan, Queen Rania marched through Amman, the capital, in support of the Palestinians.

But this is just the public face of a far more subtle and far-reaching phenomenon. Stop by the Trianon coffee shop in downtown Cairo and there might be, as there was recently, a group of women who had gathered to vent.

"I'm going to explode if I don't do something," said Hend Hafez, a homemaker from a wealthy family in the construction business. "We've been talking about the Holocaust for so many years now, but no one talks about the Palestinian dead. Is there a number that is set aside for genocide?"

It is hard to say if the anger and hatred that are so tangible will ever recede, if people will ever go back to at least the cold peace they lived with before. Right now, first grade teacher Dina Makkawi, 29, just can't imagine it.

"The war does not belong to Palestine anymore," she said. "It's the whole Middle East."

*

Aline Kazandjian of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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