• PALESTINE \ Apr 02, 2001
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    Suha Arafat makes a pilgrimage of solidarity
Suha Arafat makes a pilgrimage of solidarity

Suha Arafat, wife of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, is due this week to make a pilgrimage to Mecca - one of Islam's five pillars of faith. This surprising piece of news was reported by the PLO ambassador to Riyadh, Mustapha al-Sheikh Dib, who said that Suha Arafat would arrive in Saudi Arabia later this week for the Omra - the lesser pilgrimage, performed at any time of the year independent of the official Hajj.Why is this news surprising? Because Suha, born and raised in a Christian family, converted to Islam only in 1990, when she secretly married Yasser Arafat. After the marriage became public, Suha was quoted in several interviews as saying that she had only accepted Islam for "diplomatic purposes." In recent years, she has been seen attending the Christmas mass in Bethlehem, and according to Palestinian gossip, she was extremely angered at the reception in Bethlehem for Pope John Paul II, where the pontiff's address was interrupted by the sound of the muezzin summoning the Muslim worshipers to prayer.

Does her pilgrimage have political significance? Very probably. The current Intifada is filled with religious sentiment, according to many observers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was originally dubbed the " Al Aqsa Intifada," and the pictures of the funerals and mass processions taking place these days in the territories clearly show that the Palestinian national flag is only one of several being raised. The current Intifada has three additional flags, all with religious connotations: The green flag of Islam, waved by the supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the yellow flag of the Lebanese Hezbollah; and the Iraqi flag, to which Saddam Hussein added the inscription "God is great" during the Gulf War.

With a backdrop of a severe financial crisis in the PA, the fact that the Muslim groups have money stands out. Already during the fast of the month of Ramadan, over two months ago, students from the Bir Zeit University - among them Christians - told reporters that they were attending the dinners at the mosque every evening because Hamas was giving away free meals.

Apparently, Hamas and Islamic Jihad receive generous donations from the oil-producing countries. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and the various Gulf states despise Arafat and his men, prefering the Islamic fundamentalists. Official PA delegates sent to raise money in the Arab world make a point of always mentioning Jerusalem and Al Aqsa, conveniently stressing the religious aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thus awakening and shocking public opinion in the Arab world.

Nevertheless, the Fatah (Tanzim) activists are carrying out most of the attacks against Israel. If they were not doing so, the Islamic groups would win control of the Palestinian street. The share of Hamas and Jihad units in these attacks is, however, growing.

Just six months ago, the military wing of Hamas was completely paralyzed. Between 1996 and 2000, the PA and Israeli security forces fiercely fought Hamas and Islamic Jihad, managing to wipe out nearly all their cells by either killing or arresting most of their members. But now, most of the prisoners have been released from jail and they were quick to regroup and reorganize themselves.

In all likelihood, Suha Arafat has not changed her lifestyle or habits. Her pilgrimage to Mecca reflects the prevaling mood and feeling among the Palestinian people. Many in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have perhaps not become more religious than they were in the past; but today, they are certainly closer to the political standpoints of Hamas, which, from the very beginning, rejected the peace process and demanded a return to the armed struggle.

This is indeed the current scenario on the Israeli-Palestinian battlefield