Image: Bush and bin Laden puppets
Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
Puppets of President Bush, left, and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden are displayed in a shop in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Palestinian leaders are wary of being linked to bin Laden because he is seen as a terrorist.
updated 5/19/2008 4:55:24 PM ET 2008-05-19T20:55:24

In his latest message, Osama bin Laden portrays himself as the only true defender of the Palestinians. But the Palestinians, even the Islamic militants of Hamas, didn't seem too enthusiastic Monday over the bear hug from the fugitive al-Qaida leader.

The moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank fears its quest for independence could be sullied by perceived links to terrorism. Even the rival Hamas regime in Gaza, labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, sees al-Qaida as too extreme.

"Al-Qaida and bin Laden have caused huge damage to the image of Muslims and Arabs all over the world, and with his frequent statements about the Palestinians he just damages our image," said Nimr Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Palestinians have a "deep interest in convincing the Western world of the justice of our national cause," Hamad said. If the Palestinians are seen as "on bin Laden's side, we will definitely lose."

Bin Laden's speech posted Sunday
Bin Laden's 22-minute speech, posted on an Islamic militant Web site late Sunday, criticized Arab states for not waging war against Israel.

"Those (Arab) kings and leaders sacrificed Palestine and Al-Aqsa to keep their crowns," bin Laden said, referring to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam's holiest sites.

Israel is weak, he charged, but the Arabs have not fought "even a single serious war to get Palestine back."

He even ridiculed the leader of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, which fought Israel's military to a bloody draw in 2006. Bin Laden said Hezbollah didn't do enough and shouldn't have allowed the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, which he said was "to protect the Jews."

He attacked Arab leaders interested in negotiating with Israel: "They have decided that peace with the Zionists is their strategic option, so damn their decision." That would include Abbas, who is holding peace talks with the Israeli government.

Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, regularly level verbal blasts at Arab leaders in recordings sent from their hideout, believed to be on the wild Afghan-Pakistani frontier. But recent messages have increasingly focused on the Palestinians, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a broad Muslim audience, for whom the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is an important issue.

In Sunday's recording, bin Laden mentioned the blockade of Gaza, which was imposed by Israel and Egypt last June after Hamas fighters seized control of the coastal strip. Israel has tightened sanctions in recent months trying to pressure Gazans to halt daily rocket fire at Israeli towns, causing widespread shortages of fuel and basic goods in Gaza.

Bin Laden urges Egypt to help
Bin Laden urged militants in Egypt to help Gaza: "They are the only ones close to its borders and they must work on breaking this blockade." Egypt has a short border with Gaza, including a key crossing.

But Hamas militants seemed uneasy about bin Laden's support.

Like al-Qaida, Hamas belongs to the Sunni stream of Islam, and the two share a fundamentalist interpretation of their religion and open antipathy toward Israel and the West. As an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas — like al-Qaida — holds dreams of pan-Islamic unity, though mixed with Palestinian nationalism.

But the two groups differ in key areas. Hamas does not seek to subvert secular Arab regimes as al-Qaida does, and tries instead to work within the international system.

Hamas officials tried to distance themselves from bin Laden while not openly criticizing him.

Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Hamas would like to see Western influence in the Middle East eradicated. But he cited "a difference in method" between the two groups and said Hamas was focused on the fight with Israel.

"We are with all efforts against the foreign occupation in the area, but we confirm that Hamas' work has always been in Palestinian lands," Abu Zuhri said.

Ayman Taha, another Hamas spokesman, said the movement wants the blockade on Gaza's border with Egypt broken by nonviolent means, saying Hamas wants nothing to "harm our relationship with Egypt."

Asked if bin Laden's call to break the blockade might lead to violence, Taha said, "It could be — but I don't want to talk about it anymore."

Hamas blew up border wall
Last January, Hamas blew up the border wall with Egypt, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to cross. The border stayed open for nearly two weeks.

Both Israel and Abbas' government allege that al-Qaida is active in Gaza, and some small Palestinian militant groups have claimed ties to the terrorist network. But it is unclear whether any real links exist. Hamas denies there is an al-Qaida presence in the territory.

While there have been pockets of support for bin Laden in the Palestinian territories — the government suppressed small celebrations after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. — he has never enjoyed the widespread popularity of other anti-Western Arab leaders, such as Saddam Hussein.

Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian analyst in the West Bank, said bin Laden's statements "don't serve the Palestinians in any way."

"Ben Laden is perceived in the world as a terrorist, and any connection to the Palestinians will harm the Palestinians," he said.

But, al-Masri added, if peace talks continue to struggle and produce no real change, Abbas' government could lose support and Palestinians might be more open to al-Qaida's violent ideology.

"If bin Laden and al-Qaida carry out some attacks in Israel, he might gain some popularity here if there is no progress in the peace process," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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