Gazans stage anti-Bush protests

Al-Qaida-inspired group warns: "We're coming, not to Bush in Tel Aviv, but God willing to Washington."

bush in israel graphic  (photo credit: )
bush in israel graphic
(photo credit: )
Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza staged protests against George W. Bush on Wednesday, burning Bush in effigy and underscoring the deep political split with West Bank moderates who welcomed the visit of the US president as an important gesture to the Palestinians. Supporters of Hamas chanted "Death to America," and burned US and Israeli flags. A shadowy al-Qaida-inspired group appeared in public for the first time with rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and uttered vague threats against US targets. Bush arrived in Israel on Wednesday for a three-day visit that also includes a meeting in the West Bank on Thursday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as a pilgrimage to Jesus's traditional birth grotto in biblical Bethlehem. A senior Abbas aide, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said the Bush visit was an important opportunity for the Palestinians to make their demands heard. "By receiving Bush, we are not conceding our rights," Abed Rabbo said, addressing critics at home. "We are focusing on our rights before the entire world, and we will say there will be no peace in the region, and no peace in the world without people obtaining these rights." However, polls indicate that the vast majority of Palestinians are either indifferent to US peace promises or deeply skeptical a deal with Israel can be negotiated. The US administration is widely perceived in the Palestinian territories as a friend and ally of Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians. In an arrival ceremony at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport, Bush appeared to confirm such perceptions, emphasizing an US-Israel alliance that he said "helps guarantee Israel's security as a Jewish state." The Palestinians have balked at Israel's demand that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, amid concerns that this would block future negotiations on the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in the war that surrounded Israel's establishment in 1948. Bush also said he sees an opportunity for peace in the Holy Land. In Hamas-ruled Gaza, about 5,000 supporters of the Islamic militant group marched in the streets to protest the visit, burning effigies of Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Some held posters showing a dog biting Bush's head, and of a young man stepping on Bush's head with his shoe. Mahmoud Zahar, a leading Hamas hard-liner, told Hamas radio that "whoever holds much hope for the visit will be disappointed." Even some Abbas supporters were critical of the US leader. Some 200 supporters allied with Abbas's Fatah movement and other secular Palestinian factions urged Bush to abandon what they said was his pro-Israel bias. "We call on President Bush in his visit to adopt an equal standard, and not to continue the biased policy in favor of the occupation government," a senior Fatah leader in Gaza, Zakariya al-Agha, told the marchers. In the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis, about 20 masked supporters of an al-Qaida-inspired group calling itself the "Army of the Nation," displayed weapons in a first public appearance. The men wore black robes over black pants. Some wore red headbands with the words "death squad." A spokesman for the group, who only gave his nom de guerre, Abu Hafs, said Bush was "not welcome" in the Palestinian territories. "We are coming, not to Bush in Tel Aviv, but God willing to Washington," he said. He described members of the terror network al-Qaida as "brothers," with similar methods and ideology, but added that "there is no complete connection" to his group. Abu Hafs's group has claimed responsibility for several recent mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli border communities. In recent months, several al-Qaida-inspired groups have emerged in Gaza, though their actual links to the terror network, if any exist, are murky. An almost complete closure of Gaza since the Hamas takeover in June has driven Gazans deeper into poverty, creating fertile ground for militant groups. There has been intense speculation about a possible al-Qaida presence in the Palestinian territories since the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Palestinian intelligence officials believe the terror network has formed some sleeper cells in Gaza, and suspect possible al-Qaida involvement in several spectacular attempts to assassinate Palestinian security commanders since 2004. Israel also insists al Qaida has put down roots in Gaza, a claim denied by Hamas. Some Gazans recalled the visit of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, to Gaza in 1998. At the time, peace hopes ran high, and Clinton was given a hero's welcome in the coastal territory. "We were full of joy and hope on that day (of Clinton's visit)," said Shawki Abdel Rahman, 59, a retired teacher, who watched Bush's arrival on a large-screen TV in a Gaza electronics store. "Today, it's the opposite," he said. "There is no peace and no joy over this visit."