“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 not be willing to authorize their own government to target suicide assassins before they 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’aretz quoted 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 Radio reported that the two days after the WTC attacks saw “the largest number of simultaneous operations since the uprising started.”
By September 14, Sharon had called off scheduled talks between Arafat and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, and announced that Israel was establishing a “buffer zone” between itself and the northern West Bank, a swath of land as wide as three kilometers that Palestinians will not be permitted to enter. Meanwhile, Ha’aretz quoted a senior diplomatic source close to Sharon asserting that Israel was already taking advantage of more freedom to exert military pressure. “We are operating in the Jenin area and nobody’s complaining,” he said. In addition to Jenin, the population centers of Jericho, Gaza, Ramallah, and Qalqiliya all came under sustained attack.
On September 12, the Israeli military stormed a West Bank village in pursuit of three alleged Islamic Jihad activists, firing missiles and shells on the building where they had barricaded themselves. In the three-hour exchange of fire, five Palestinian civilians were killed—among them a 12-year-old girl—and 50 wounded. The next day, Israeli tanks roared into West Bank towns again, setting off gun battles that left three Palestinians dead and 21 wounded. The incursions, the Israeli military said, were intended to “root out terror.”
As this week’s parade of Israeli politicos on American TV networks suggests, Israeli officials are regarded as the most legitimate experts on terrorism. Only last month New York’s police commissioner Bernard Kerik visited Israel to to discuss anti-terrorism tactics (and Israeli trafficking of Ecstasy pills). But Khalidi, among others, warns that Israel’s military strategy simply has not worked: Striking civilian centers in which guerrilla actions may be hatched only tightens the spiral of vengeance. Israel’s own military coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza, General Amos Gilad, has said that Israel’s repression of Palestinians in the occupied territories produces “a fool’s cycle of violence in which Hamas grows stronger, we respond, and as a result the hardship in the territories grows and Hamas grows even stronger. If the situation continues, we are likely to be confronted with . . . five terror attacks a day.”
The point was not lost on former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, writing in a Ha’aretz op-ed about what he deems the cynical uses his government is making of the American tragedy. Speaking deeply from his experience as an Israeli, he concludes, “There’s no doubt that the world after September 11 will be different from the world before this date, but what kind of world it will be remains an unknown. What is clear is that if it is shaped only by feelings of vengeance, and not in accordance with the need to deal with the rotting soil in which the hate, envy, and frustration of the terrorists grew, it won’t be a better world.”
Critics of the now canceled pro-Israel rally in New York have been saying for months that the event dangerously shut out Jews who dissent from Israel’s violent crackdown against Palestinians, and they had been organizing a range of anti-occupation events for the same day. Now they have joined an inchoate peace movement, planning various kinds of anti-war manifestations on the 23rd in response to Mayor Giuliani’s call for a mass memorial rally in Central Park on that date. Amid the clamor for vengeance and war, they say, the original rally’s slogan—”Some moments define who you are”—might more properly be contemplated by all Americans.