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SPEAKING FREELY
How Palestine is dying in Iraq
By Sadi Baig

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

"The more aggressive the [Iraq] attack is, the more it will help Israel against the Palestinians. The understanding would be that what is good to do in Iraq, is also good for here."
- Gideon Ezra, Israeli cabinet minister (Christian Science Monitor, August 2002)

With the Iraq war, a fusion of US and Israeli interests, intended or not, has come about. The most important from an Israeli viewpoint is the issue of a Palestinian state comprising some or all of the occupied Palestinian territories. With US policy reversal on the occupied territories, its open and sometimes tacit support for moves such as building of the "Wall", assassinations of Hamas' political leadership, and destruction of Palestinian homes and economic life, Washington has now tied itself too closely to dissociate itself from Israeli actions. The ambiguity cultivated so painstakingly over the years in the Arab mind toward the US role in the region has all but vaporized.

The US public perception has never been more unfavorable toward the Arab and Muslim world as it is now. There is no dearth of incendiary speeches in the media, which are manifesting themselves in predictable ways. Domestically, the Council on American Islamic Relations reports the number of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States to have doubled since last year. The Iraq war widens this chasm with commentators such as Michael Savage, who runs the third-most-popular radio show in the US, Savage Nation, openly calling for killing the "non-human" Arabs and "nuking" Arab capitals, without fear of the authorities bearing down on him. In the din of incessant reporting of the incident, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News called for the US military to "rip the place apart" when four of its contractors were killed by a mob in Fallujah. Unsurprisingly, there was hardly any sympathetic sentiment in the media or political leadership over the siege and bombardment of Fallujah in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, which resulted in 600-700 fatalities, according to the Associated Press.

There is no political leader in the US who can even dare to rap the Israeli leadership on its knuckles - not that such superficial measures are going to improve the United States' image in the Middle East anyway. Recent US abstention from the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza looks more a good cop-bad cop routine than a genuine policy change. In fact there is a precedent, with the US abstaining many times in the past on council resolutions critical of Israel. The last such abstention was regarding Resolution 1435 adopted in September 2002 condemning Israeli attacks on Ramallah. This was around the same time that war preparations against Iraq were in full swing, as has been reported widely in the press. Anti-Israeli resolutions in the Security Council have never had any moderating influence on Israeli actions, as they are viewed by Tel Aviv as publicity moves designed to relieve pressure in the Arab and wider Muslim world, rather than enduring policy shifts. Moreover, such condemnations are crucial for permanent Security Council members France and Britain, the twin architects of the present-day Middle East, to protect their political and economic interests by appearing to support the Arab cause against Israel.

The way and the speed with which events have unfolded in the occupied Palestinian territories signal a realization on the part of the Israeli leadership that it may be time to begin an incremental purge of the Palestinians from their homeland. The demographics in the occupied territories clearly threaten the future of the Jewish state, and therefore must be changed in Israel's favor. Israel is therefore not a status quo power, and must continually strive to alter the status quo to ensure the protection of its interests. Taking a twisted view of the prophetic theology of "dispensationalism", Christian Zionists hold such extreme measures in line with preparation for the second coming of Christ. Resolutions in the US House of Representatives and public statements by Republican leaders such as the now-retired Dick Armey, the current majority leader Tom Delay, and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, openly quoting the Bible to support his views, speak volumes on the extent of their support for such actions.

With the might of the US military encircling them and daily threats of sanctions, it is unlikely that governments in the Middle East can and will do anything to stop the escalating dislocation of Palestinians. US military presence in the region has a restraining effect on the regional governments, as the actors would find it difficult to keep the US out in a possible conflict with Israel. The US presence is more effective in its restraining power than its active involvement. It is in the backdrop of such support that Israel can undertake drastic actions without inviting armed conflict with its neighbors. In fact, any subsequent US departure from the region may even be timed to ensure achievement of Israeli objectives vis-a-vis the occupied territories. There is little danger of Israel's neighbors aggregating into anything formidable, as militarily they are too weak and are politically divided.

But even if hostilities were to be feared, Israeli strategists can be counted on to deliver a pretext that portrays the conflict as a legitimate defensive action by the US, with acceleration in driving out the Palestinians as the desired side-effect. One easy rationale would be covert Syrian assistance to the Iraqi insurgency, as is being alleged in the recent bombing of a wedding party in Mukaradeeb, near the town of al-Qaim in western Iraq close to the Syrian border. The same can be used against Iran, along with nuclear allegations, though the likelihood of Iran getting involved seems low as there are signs that it is closer to a strategic detente with the US than ever.

Sure, there is going to be a lot of fallout in the worsening of public mood toward the US and Israel in the region over the displacement of Palestinians. Moreover, governments in the area will come under great strain to respond to the outcry of their populace. But in the end the turmoil that will ensue will have little negative impact, and such instability may even be beneficial from a strategic standpoint. Barring drastic reversals in current policies, this may indeed be the beginning of the end not just for the hopes of a Palestinian state, but for the Palestinians as a people in their own land.

As for winning the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims, image-marketing measures offer little help if the intention is to take what you hold most dear. Such talk seems to be directed more toward the international community than Arab and Muslims societies themselves. Anarchy is not freedom, and democracy sans sovereignty is a conflict in terms. Positive perception of the US was central to the grand plan of democratizing the Middle East. Yet it is utterly confounding that with Israeli-style search and seizure operations, lack of transparency regarding oil revenues, bombing of civilian populations, and widespread prison torture, the US seems to be undermining the central plank of its own strategy. Would it be unreasonable to conclude that the stated policy blocks from view motives too unacceptable to be publicly revealed?

Israel has never tried to win any publicity contests in the Arab world, and has always gotten what it wanted while ignoring international opprobrium reflected in countless UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions. Why can the US not do the same by doing away with policy decisions of the Cold War era laden with multilateral niceties, in a clearly unipolar world?

Sadi Baig is a freelance political analyst.

(Copyright 2004 Sadi Baig)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


May 27, 2004



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