Fuel for the Fire

The Twin Towers Attack Emboldens Israeli Hawks

"Some moments define who you are. This is one of them." In the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, this assertion sounded grandiose, even distasteful, as the advertising slogan urging Jews to attend a pro-Israel rally scheduled for September 23. Last Wednesday, organizers called off the IsraelNOW Solidarity Rally, after months of national mobilizing and a massive PR campaign. The rally had expected to draw some 50,000 participants from all over the country. Billed as a "non-political" expression of unconditional support for the Jewish state, it was to feature Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as a speaker.

In canceling the rally, officials from United Jewish Communities, the national umbrella organization, said they didn't want to overburden New York police officers after the trauma and exhaustion of the World Trade Center rescue efforts; thousands would have been called to the detail. More important, organizers said that such a display of support for Israel would be inappropriate at a time when America was reeling from last Tuesday's tragedy.

It would also have been redundant. Now, support for Israel in America is officially absolute, and Palestinians are cast once again as players in a global terrorist conspiracy.


In a list of talking points issued last week, leaders from the Jewish Council on Public Affairs urged that "the Jewish community should focus its message on solidarity with the United States and condemnation of terrorism, and not on Israeli-Palestinian relations." But Middle East experts say the catastrophe that struck America last week will have far-reaching consequences in Israel and the occupied territories.

From national networks to small-town newspapers, the view that America's terrible taste of terrorism will finally do away with even modest calls for the restraint of Israel's military attacks on Palestinian towns has become an instant, unshakable axiom. Such a point of view may have been expected from former Israeli prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who all but gloated about it on American TV just hours after the twin towers collapsed. At the same time, an editorial in Thursday's Rocky Mountain News offered new enthusiasm for Israel's assassinations of suspected militants—57 have been hit in what Israel calls "pinpoint liquidations" over the last year. "How many Americans today would notbe willing to authorize their own government to target suicide assassins beforethey strike?" the editorial asks—and it replies, "The question answers itself." Apart from the problem of violating international laws against extrajudicial killings, the Colorado paper doesn't consider how Americans might feel about the killing of civilian bystanders, a frequent outcome of Israel's attacks—and further fuel for Palestinian resentment and resistance, as has been suggested by some of Israel's own military commanders.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, sees such editorials as reflecting—and consolidating—American identification with Israel. "Apart from the strategic component of the U.S.-Israel relationship, there's a cultural and ideological sense that they are like us," she says. "They are a democracy, they wear the skimpy clothes to the beach, and they're white—at least the ones we deal with." In a catastrophe as incomprehensible as Tuesday's, she adds, there's a tendency to regard the perpetrators as people who don't participate in our common humanity. If it turns out that those perpetrators were indeed Arabs, "that exacerbates the us/them distinction. People are not exactly subtle in their understanding of the diversity among Arab or Muslim nationalities and within those various nationalities. The result is a further diminution of legitimacy given to the claim of Palestinian rights." The Israeli daily Ha'aretzquoted Sharon telling Colin Powell, "Everyone has his own [Osama] bin Laden and [Yasir] Arafat is ours."

The repeated broadcast of some Palestinians in Nablus celebrating Tuesday's attacks—and very little reporting of the far more widespread outpouring of Palestinian sympathy for American losses—extends the equation of Palestinians with the twin tower attackers, and further obscures the issue of Palestinian grievances. The use of footage was especially cynical, charges Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago, because it left out the context: Nablus had been invaded by Apache helicopters days before, killing suspected terrorists as well as civilians. "That doesn't mean celebrations are laudable, but they are not representative and they don't come out of nowhere. And the unstated conclusion is unacceptable—that 'we've got these sons of bitches now and we should hit them and help Israel hit them.' "

It's a short step to a catch-all defense of any action taken in the name of quashing terrorism. The syllogism is already impossible to challenge, says Bennis: "If you don't allow us to use F-16s against refugee camps, if you don't let us demolish homes, if you don't permit us to detain people without charges forever, we will have another World Trade Center-Pentagon attack."


Israeli peace activists are already expressing alarm at their government's gloating invocation of such reasoning. The Tel Aviv-based group Gush Shalom issued a statement on Thursday deploring the jingoistic jubilation of editorials in the local press. Ma'ariv, for example, urged that Sharon "seize the moment and use against terrorism the kind of means which hitherto he did not dare to use for fear of international reaction." But, the Gush Shalom statement lamented, "Sharon needed little urging." Israel Radioreported that the two days after the WTC attacks saw "the largest number of simultaneous operations since the uprising started."

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