x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

9/11 Remembered: Palestinians, the forgotten victims

Reports of happy, gloating Palestinians shocked the West after 9/11 - but the nation's goals were a world away from those of Al Qaeda and the attacks caused only further suffering, writes Vita Bekker, foreign correspondent.

A Palestinian mourner carries the body of two-year-old Malek Shaat, who they say was killed in an Israeli air raid in August. Hatem Moussa / AP Photo
A Palestinian mourner carries the body of two-year-old Malek Shaat, who they say was killed in an Israeli air raid in August. Hatem Moussa / AP Photo

TEL AVIV // Two hours after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, Mahdi Abdul Hadi stood before an audience of professors and students at Bethlehem University in the West Bank.

He was due to give a lecture - but tore up the 15-page text of his address.

"I was supposed to talk about academia, politics, culture and history, but instead I told them that today was a new cornerstone in the Middle East," recalled Mr Abdul Hadi, the founder of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

While anti-Israeli militants had carried out suicide attacks and the second intifada had already been under way for a year, the goals of the Palestinians were a far cry from those of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Nevertheless, in the dawning post-9/11 world they often would be painted in the West with the same brush - the repercussions of which Mr Abdul Hadi was all too aware.

"I told my audience these attacks would touch all of our lives," he said.

"Palestinians are the core of the Islamic cause, so anything happening around us is either about us or for us or within us."

Indeed, with the exception of the victims of 9/11 themselves, the Palestinians were as deeply affected by the attacks as any people.

Although the Palestinian cause had ranked for years near the top of the list of most Muslims' list of grievances, the fact that the treatment of Palestinians also rated high in the 9/11 attackers' inventory of injustices would be cited frequently in the next decade to discredit their ambition for a state of their own.

For many people beyond the Arab Middle East, "resistance" became synonymous with "terrorism".

The initial reactions of Palestinians and Israelis helped pin the two peoples on opposite sides of the so-called war on terror.

Some foreign news outlets reported that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, angry at US support for Israel's actions in occupied territories, had rejoiced, chanting "God is Great" and distributing sweets to passers-by.

They also reported that dozens of uniformed Palestinian guerillas at a refugee camp in Lebanon had fired assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades into the air in celebration.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat expressed shock at the attacks and, according to some reports, even donated blood the following day at a Gaza hospital for its victims.

Nevertheless, the perception of a happy, even gloating, Palestinian public stuck.

In Israel, the reaction to 9/11 was sharply different.

Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, declared the day after the attacks a national day of mourning in solidarity with the US and set up a blood bank for the wounded.

Recognising that George W Bush had become a wartime president, he pressed his advantage.

In the ensuing weeks, he repeatedly likened Arafat to bin Laden in an attempt to smear, if not demonise, the Palestinian leader.

Anticipating US pressure on Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian issue, Mr Sharon also warned the US president in a speech three weeks after the attacks against making the mistakes of Munich in 1938, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had abandoned Czechoslovakia to the Nazi leader Adolph Hitler.

"Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense," he cautioned. "Israel will not be Czechoslovakia."

The Israeli premier's manoeuvring succeeded handsomely.

Mr Bush publicly announced nine months later that Israel would not have to negotiate under fire and said Washington's policy was now to seek a replacement for Arafat.

Furthermore, he made it clear that the burden of demonstrating progress towards the goal of Middle East peace now fell to the Palestinians.

In effect, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process had been made hostage to "progress" in the war on terror - a calculatingly vague barometer that was tantamount to consenting to no progress at all.

In the short term, the 9/11 attacks yielded other benefits for Israel, too.

Controversial Israeli military strategies for combating Palestinian violence such as extrajudicial detentions, targeted killings and the profiling of terror suspects became state-of-the-art, sought-after commodities by law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world.

Into the bargain, Israel's military got a licence for less restraint in the Palestinian territories.

"It was a new chapter of security I called the three Gs - gates, guards and guns," Mr Abdul Hadi said.

Shlomo Brom, a former director of the Israeli army's strategic planning division, believes 9/11 created "more understanding" for Israeli military actions - although the cost in innocent lives was often high.

Disputed Israeli operations such as targeted assassinations - or the deliberate targeting and killing of militants - became an accepted norm, said Mr Brom, now a senior analyst at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

"When we started with targeted killings, it wasn't clear whether it was legitimate," he said.

"But with the war on terror, the US began doing it on a daily basis in Pakistan with the drones, and it became a legitimate operational means."

In the view of some Israelis, their country imbibed too heavily on the vindication it received in powerful quarters in the West after the attacks on 9/11.

Now, suggested Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, it is ailing from a severe hangover.

"Israel is now suffering from a major pathology of overreaction to terror that hurts it on the diplomatic and security fronts," according to Mr Ezrahi.

The attacks fuelled a rightward shift in Israeli politics that was already well under way in 2001, helping empower the more security-minded right while weakening the centre and the left, which advocated a more moderate response to the Palestinian uprising.

Today, that right-wing dominates the country's government and parliament. The security focus and allocation of major state budget resources to the defence establishment has even contributed to a recent mass revolt of Israeli civilians against what they claimed was the neglect in areas such as housing, education and health care, he added. "Israeli citizens are paying an enormous price for the leadership of the likes of Bibi," said Mr Ezrahi, referring by nickname to the country's hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some experts believe that Israel is still stuck in the post-9/11 era of seemingly unchecked aggression and is failing to adjust to a new period of pro-democracy civilian mutinies across the Arab world.

"Palestinians are part of this new era," said Mr Abdul Hadi. "But Israelis continue their violence in the West Bank and Gaza. They have not yet awakened to what would happen to them if the Palestinian street wakes up."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae