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Palestinians fear Sharon's reaction to a U.S. war on Iraq

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Ask Palestinians what worries them most about the looming U.S. war on Iraq, and they talk about cowering in their rooms under attack, more killings and huge refugee upheavals.

They're not describing the havoc that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might bring with a chemical weapon attack on Israel. They're talking about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

With the world's attention averted, they fear, Sharon may send more troops to take over more Arab land and use it as a pretext to kill or exile their already embattled leader, Yasser Arafat, further undermining their dream of an independent Palestine.

A human rights group has asked Israel's High Court to order that country to give gas masks to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The group argues that Israel is morally responsible for the Arabs' welfare after more than two years of conflict between the two sides.

But just as Israelis offer one part disbelief, one part bravado at the prospect of a new round of Iraqi Scud missile attacks on their country, Palestinians say there is little they can do if Saddam sends poison gas their way.

"We aren't afraid of the war between America and Iraq. It's Sharon we fear," said pharmacist Samir Toubassi, who reported an increase in customers buying supplies of diabetes medicines and other routine prescriptions, in case Israel clamps a tough curfew on Palestinians, as it did in the last Persian Gulf War.

Sharon has swatted away Palestinians' fears.

"We have no intentions to do anything beyond anything what is necessary," he said last month.

He recalled that Palestinians "were dancing on the roofs" when Iraqi Scuds struck the Israeli city of Tel Aviv in 1991, then he warned the Palestinians—as well as Syria and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon—not to provoke Israel during a U.S.-Iraqi war. "We don't have any intentions. They can be quiet, and if they are quiet, nothing will happen to them."

There is an increasingly entrenched sense of helplessness and frustration on both sides after more than two years of suicide bombings, reprisals and bitter street battles between Israeli soldiers and Arab gunmen that have killed 1,821 Palestinians and 701 Israelis and foreign workers.

In Ramallah, Arabs routinely navigate Israeli roadblocks and brick-throwing battles between young men and Israeli jeep patrols in search of gunmen and suicide bombers. Israeli armor sometimes trundles through the streets, bashing open shops and homes.

Schools, businesses and basic services often are paralyzed by the violence or by curfews, while Israel tentatively seeks a Palestinian peace-talk partner other than Arafat, who is holed up in his once-sprawling presidential compound, offering his latest plan to reform the ravaged remnants of the discredited Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian fashion designer Basma Odeh, 41, offered this snapshot of her life:

This week was the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, a sort of Islamic Thanksgiving when families get together for meals and to exchange gifts. But Israeli closures kept Odeh's parents and sisters, in separate villages just miles away, from visiting, not even for a farewell party for her 19-year-old daughter, who is going to a university in Cairo, Egypt, because of on-again, off-again classes here and as a safe haven from a U.S.-Iraqi war.

"We have two problems here. One problem is from Iraq. Maybe he will send something," she said, buying fruits and vegetables for the farewell feast at a stand outside Arafat's shattered headquarters. "And then maybe, while the world is distracted, Sharon will come and do something."

What could Sharon do? "More killing. More prisoners. TRANSFER," she said, using the ultra-right-wing Israeli code word for the wholesale expulsion of Palestinians from the lands west of the Jordan River.

Palestinians complain bitterly of what they see as a double standard: American willingness to wage war to enforce U.N. resolutions on Iraq's refusal to give up weapons of mass destruction, while employing a softer hand toward Israel on decades-old U.N. resolutions that it leave the West Bank and Gaza.

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Carol Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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