East Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods were pockets of joy Tuesday. In a world heartsick with grief after the terrorist attacks against America, young men passed out squares of baklava, honoring the Muslim tradition of serving sweets in times of celebration. A middle-aged cab driver honked his horn, stuck his fist out the window, and shouted gleefully, "America has been destroyed!"
From the remote desert training camps in Yemen to the steaming fruit markets of a Cairo ghetto, Arabs knew whom they thought they should thank: Osama bin Laden. The accused mastermind of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, bin Laden commands a disturbing amount of respect in the Arab world for his fight against what is viewed as American-backed Israeli aggression. "Osama is a hero here because he is the only one who stands up to the U.S.—who isn't afraid of them," said Mohamed Ali Sauti, a Yemeni student speaking by telephone from the capital of Sana. "He will prevail if Allah wills it."
Praise for bin Laden, a 44-year-old Saudi dissident, is rarely so direct; circumlocution is more typical. "What would you do if your wife was raped?" asked Said Makhmoud, 43, surrounded by a dozen tea drinkers in Cairo's Imbaba slum. "I'm talking about the wife that represents honor, virginity, and ownership." If you answer that you might try to find the man "and punish him or even kill him," Said continued, "well, then, you are like our Osama and you must see why we admire him."
"Holy warriors." In desperately poor countries like Yemen and Sudan, bin Laden can count on young recruits for his jihad against the West. His well-funded al Qaeda organization is viewed first and foremost in such places as a humanitarian foundation that assists society's castoffs. But bin Laden's "holy warriors" come from from all over the world. In a desert cafe in Yemen not long ago, a group of supporters sat together extolling bin Laden as an Islamic hero worth emulating. Among them were men from Afghanistan, Chechnya, and England. There was even a Vietnam veteran from Maryland.
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada against Israel a year ago, moderate Arab nations have warned Washington to expect a hardening of public opinion in the Middle East. "I've never seen people so angry at the United States," says Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East scholar at the University of Chicago who recently conducted interviews in the region. Though Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat condemned the attacks, the official PA newspaper, Al-Hayat Al-Jadeedah, praised the suicide bombers as "the noble successors of their noble predecessors... the Lebanese suicide bombers, who taught the U.S. Marines a tough lesson" in 1983 in Beirut.
To be sure, bin Laden has his share of detractors in the Arab world, especially among Muslims who believe the terrorist has finally overstepped the bounds of what is acceptable and among those who still harbor hopes of a negotiated peace between the Palestinians and Israel. In an unambiguous denunciation of Tuesday's terror, the director of an East Jerusalem think tank, Mahdi Abdel Hadi, said: "This was a very, very ugly attack. Those who were seen celebrating are stupid and faithless and ignorant."
While some Palestinians were dancing in the streets, Israeli hearts remained with America. But that sympathy was tinged with a measure of cynicism."We told you so," was a well-worn phrase among Israelis in the hours after the attacks. One Jerusalem professor tartly suggested that "After America bombs the s- - - out of somebody, Israel should put out a statement calling for 'both sides to show restraint to end the cycle of violence.' "
There was also a sense in the beleaguered country that Americans might finally understand the full depth of Israel's plight. "I was happy—yes, happy—to see that the pictures of Palestinians waving flags and clapping their hands in Ramallah and Nablus were broadcast around the world," said Otniel Schneller, a Jewish West Bank settler and leader. "There is no better public relations for Israel than this."