G A Z A C I T Y, Gaza Strip, Jan. 2, 2002 -- On the front steps of the tattered YMCA here, people walk on mock Israeli and American flags arranged as doormats. Inside, the stage is festooned with Iraqi and Palestinian flags.
A large banner depicts the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, one of Islam's holiest sites, dripping in blood. In one corner, the larger-than-life faces of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein smile side by side on a poster.
After 50 minutes of fiery speeches praising Saddam and Arafat and vilifying President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 25 Palestinians are called to the stage one by one. Each is handed a check — a gift from Saddam Hussein.
Each recipient is the mother, father, wife or other close relative of either a suicide bomber or someone killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers or security guards at settlements in the Gaza Strip or West Bank.
Today's donation: a total of $285,000 — a princely sum in the economically distressed Gaza Strip.
One of the recipients is Nada Mahdi, a 22-year-old student, who arrived for the ceremony carrying her 3-month-old son, Ismail. Her husband, Mohammad, blew himself up last month trying to attack an Israeli military post in the Gaza Strip. There were no other injuries in the incident.
"I am proud of him," she says in Arabic after collecting her $25,000 check. "May God reward him."
In the two years of the renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq has given Palestinian families more than $10 million, all according to a well-known scale. Families of suicide bombers get $25,000 each and families of those killed in confrontations with Israel get $10,000. Those who houses are destroyed by the Israeli military get $5,000 and those wounded by Israelis get $1,000.
President Bush says the money rewards and solicits murder. An official of the charity that distributes the money says it symbolizes solidarity between Iraqis and Palestinians — both, he says, targets of American aggression.
"The same weapons that are targeting Iraq are targeting Palestinians," says Abu Samir of the Arabic Liberation Front. "We are in the same bunker."
The group also distributes food from Iraq, and uses Iraqi funds to run hospitals and provide scholarships to Iraqi schools.
Saddam is very popular among many Palestinians because of his active support of the Palestinian cause and his missile attacks on Israel during the Gulf War.
After the ceremony, Mahdi thanked the Iraqi leader. "He is the only one who understands our situation — he's suffering the same tragedy," she says.
Mahdi's husband told her of his suicide mission only just before he left. She says she tried to talk him out of it — to no avail.
"He was determined," she recalls. "I could not stop him — God and the homeland are more important than anything. Even his son."
The money, she says, is for Ismail's future. But it was her husband's wish that — if the Palestinians' lot does not improve — little Ismail grow up to be a suicide bomber, too. His mother agrees.