There was little time wasted between the announcement of the bombings in America and the focus of world attention on Palestinians and Israelis. The speedy and unambiguous denouncement by top Palestinian leaders including President Arafat to the terrorism in America did little to shift attention and blame away from the Middle East. The Israelis lined up their officials and experts ready to provide a hungry American TV audience with clear conclusions, immediately linking the bombings to this region and giving advice to Americans how they should deal with this problem. The Israelis tried to solicit as much sympathy for their plight, prejudging the motives and linking themselves with the Americans as partners in the fight against “Islamic terror.”
Undoubtedly, the Middle East conflict had for months been begging for world attention. Few ever expected or dreamed that it will happen in this manner. The Arab region had been gradually escalating its anti-American feelings. George W. Bush’s clear bias to Israel was very troubling to Arabs who had been expecting him to be more evenhanded than his predecessor. His reception in the White House to the right wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon while shunning Palestine’s Yasser Arafat was the beginning of a situation that would quickly poison the attitude of Arabs towards America. This at the same time that Arab satellite TV stations was broadcasting daily footage showing Palestinians being humiliated by Israeli soldiers. The world silence was causing an unprecedented level of frustration and helplessness.
This anti-American feeling became more obvious once the Bush administration started vocally defending the Israeli actions. The “understanding” that US Vice President Dick Chaney expressed for what he called Israel’s defensive needs to assassinate Palestinian leaders was widely played up in the Arab media. This feeling only increased once the Israelis assassinated one of the most senior PLO officials, Abu Ali Mustafa, the general secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Although this is a secular PLO faction, his killing unified Islamic and nationalist forces in Palestine.
The frustrations of the Arab peoples with America reached unprecedented heights when the US delegation so brazenly and publicly sided with Israel before and during the UN’s anti-racism conference in Durban South Africa. The fact that the US was unwilling to accept what the world had seen in clear discrimination by Israel towards Palestinians, widened the rift with America and increased Islamic and third world support for Palestinians.
Throughout the past year and as the frustration of Arabs and Muslim peoples was rising, governments in the region were seen as being completely helpless in defending Palestinians or in pressing the US to take a more balance approach. The gap between the people and governments kept on widening. This schism showed up clearly when the US was attacked on 11 September.
Every single Arab and Muslim governmental leader of import lined up in front of world TVs denouncing the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington. But ordinary peoples who are not bound by diplomacy or government interests had little reason to pretend that they were unhappy with seeing America and Americans getting their noses rubbed in the dirt.
Although there were isolated cases of Palestinians publicly celebrating the attacks on America, these reactions were captured by some television cameras and broadcast all over the world. This was not helpful to the Palestinian efforts to shed the “terrorism” label, which had been pinned on them in the 70s and 80s. But for some of the Palestinians living through the 11th month of a crippling Israeli military siege of their towns and villages, PR was not an issue they cared much about. Other public displays in solidarity with Americans including the giving of blood and putting flowers near the US consulate in Jerusalem didn’t receive much attention.
For most Palestinians, while the images on television were riveting, few had any idea who is behind this attack. Most hoped it would not be Palestinian for fear of a brutal US revenge and a further set back in the hops for peace. The name of Osama Ben Ladn was foreign to most Palestinians. He certainly is not seen any kind of folk hero or a savior that people have any faith in. His photos has never been lifted in demonstrations and he has never been mentioned in statements of the various Palestinian organizations including the radical Islamic ones like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Palestinian organizations were very quick in denying responsibility to the attack against America. Statements varied from those trying to indicate that the US should not have been surprised that oppressed peoples would be silent for ever to those that were unequivocal in their denouncing of the attacks.
The images of some Palestinians in the West Bank town of Nablus and in Lebanese refugee camps celebrating the American demise was troubling to Palestinian leaders. In some cases it was reported that Palestinian police used force to stop Palestinians from publicly showing signs of support. One Palestinian journalists reported that scores of international television crews were seen searching the streets of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem hoping to find public displays of happiness in order to record it.
Naturally the question on the minds of the people of the Middle East is simply how will these incidents affect their lives. Will the Middle East be punished directly or indirectly in revenge to these attacks?
Will it increase US isolationist tendencies? Will it further increase US bias towards Israel in response to the Israeli calls to Americans that we “are partners in the fight against terrorism.”
Deeper questions also prevailed, what about the larger issue of suicide attacks. Will religious leaders condemn or support it. Will the sanctioning of suicide attacks against Israelis be differentiated from an attack against American targets? Did those who planned and executed the attacks on New York and Washington receive encouragement from the Islamic suicide attacks against Israeli?
On the long term even more questions are being posed. Will the US think of any response other than a military one? Despite its anger will it consider the possibility that its foreign policies might have contributed to the poisoned anti American atmosphere that encouraged people to commit such actions that also included the sacrifice of their own lives?
The issue of the US trying to establish a broad coalition against terrorism also received attention after countries like Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan were included in resident Bush’s initial phone calls. Some commentators suggested that these countries must request a more forceful and honest US approach to solving the Palestinian conflict as a prerequisite for these countries joining the US in its efforts. Still others even went to the call for a suspension of the initfada as a good will gesture to the world’s efforts to fight terrorism.
The bombings of New York and Washington will forever change the make up of US domestic and foreign policy. People living in the Middle East will be watching closely whether these changes will make their lives better or worse. While the consensus is that in the short term the situation looks bleak for Palestinians, some hope that in the long term this forced attention to the Middle East will bring in positive results in relieving Palestinians from a decades long military occupation.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.