Last Tuesday, I was walking down the street with two friends in Gaza City when I got a phone call from my father. His usually calm voice sounded deeply shaken as he told me the news: two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon. The TV was reporting that a Palestinian group had claimed responsibility. All of a sudden, the world came to a standstill. In shock and disbelief, we rushed to the nearest television. For hours, we sat in front of CNN and Al-Jazeera. With the rest of the world, we watched in horror as the buildings collapsed and felt an unexplainable combination of fear, disgust, anger, frustration, sadness, and confusion.
Outside, Gaza was eerily quiet. In one of the most densely populated places on earth, you could hear a pin drop. For two to three days, Palestinians were glued to their television sets - except in Jenin and Jericho where they were under attack by Israeli forces. The only thing that anyone talked about was the attack in the United States: the possible perpetrators, the numerous causes, and the likely effects. Most of all, people expressed an overwhelming sadness and a deep sense of pain. They were outraged and angry about the attacks on American civilians. They said that these attacks were horrible and should never have happened.
Immediately after the attacks, the press began to claim that the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had carried out the attacks. The absurdity of such claims seemed to escape the commentators. But Palestinians knew better: these groups are so small and disorganized that they could not possibly have carried out such a large-scale operation. Besides, all of their efforts are directed towards resisting Israeli military aggression and challenging the ongoing colonization of Palestine and the racist oppression of Palestinians by Israel.
Soon reports claimed that Palestinians were celebrating in the streets and handing out candy to children. A single clip of a few people claiming victory in the streets of Nablus has been repeatedly broadcast on American and European television for the last week. I can assure you that this was a rare and isolated incident. There was absolutely no celebration in the Gaza Strip. I called friends throughout the West Bank to find out from them what was happening in their cities. They said that there had been one or two random shots fired into the air, but that the atmosphere was one of horror and sorrow rather than celebration.
These attacks are not something that Palestinians can celebrate. On the contrary, most Palestinians had a powerful and spontaneous reaction of disgust at the bombings and empathy with the people who suffered from the attacks. They know exactly what it feels like to be a civilian population under attack. For the last 34 years, the Palestinians have been living under a brutal Israeli military occupation that uses terror to control the occupied population.
For the last year, the Israeli military has escalated the amount of violence it uses against the Palestinian people: fighter planes, helicopter gunships, tanks, and heavy assault weapons are regularly used against the civilian population of Palestine. These attacks are rarely called terrorism because they are carried out by the Israeli government rather than by a secretive and mysterious organization. But they are intended to terrorize the population and to instill a sense of fear that will suffocate the will to resist Israeli oppression.
The Palestinians recognized the attacks on American civilians as a form of terrorism no different than that used against them by the Israeli military. They know very well the fear that Americans are experiencing right now and they feel a great deal of empathy with the American pain. On Friday night in Jerusalem, Palestinians held a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of the attack in the United States. Although the vigil received no press coverage, CNN and BBC continue to broadcast the clip of Palestinians celebrating the attacks. But the empathy is real - the Palestinians feel a connection right now with the American people that they want to express.
There is another reason that Palestinians cannot celebrate: they are running for their lives. Palestine has been under siege for the last week - and the world does not know about it because all of the media attention has been on the United States. Israeli officials have openly stated that this is a 'golden opportunity' for Israel to annihilate the Palestinian resistance. That is the word that is most often repeated by Israeli government officials: opportunity.
Now that the world has turned its attention to the United States and Afghanistan, Israeli military officials feel that they have a 'freer hand' to do as they please in the occupied Palestinian territories. And they have definitely not wasted the opportunity. Israeli forces have besieged almost every Palestinian city over the last week:
- On Tuesday, the very same day as the attack on the United States, 15 Israeli tanks, along with attack helicopters and ground troops, rolled into the Palestinian city of Jenin. Its been nearly a week and they are still there.
- On Wednesday, 22 tanks with ground and air support besieged Jericho. Nablus remains surrounded and under fire.
- On Saturday, Israeli tanks, helicopters, and boats launched missiles on Nuseirat, Gaza City, Beit Hanoun, Rafah, and the beach - all in the Gaza Strip. On Saturday night, tanks pounded Beit Sahour, killing an ambulance driver.
- Ramallah has been invaded on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights - with the siege expected to continue.
- As of 4:00 pm on September 17, 26 Palestinians have been killed by occupation forces since the attacks in the United States. The siege shows no sign of letting up as long as the attention of the world is directed elsewhere.
The current escalation of the siege against the Palestinians has two primary aims. First of all, it is an attempt to crush the Palestinian resistance and instill fear in the Palestinian people. On Saturday night, helicopters and tanks shelled every Palestinian police and security building in the southwest part of Ramallah. The Israeli military is attempting to finally and brutally smash the centers of Palestinian resistance. But the buildings that belonged to the security forces made up roughly 5% of all the buildings that the Israelis shelled that night. The other 95% were civilian homes, stores and offices. These attacks were clearly meant to create terror among the Palestinian people and to destroy their will to resist.
But there is another, more appalling reason behind the Israeli assault this week. Sharon and his cabinet are once again attempting to provoke the Palestinians to respond with violence. By backing the Palestinians into a corner and assaulting them from all sides, Sharon is hoping that someone will lash out with a vicious bombing in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. It is sick to think that Sharon would want such a thing to happen to his own people, but it is not a new policy.
For years, the Israeli military has used assassinations and assaults on civilians to provoke a violent Palestinian reaction. This policy has been pushed to new limits during the current Intifada. In fact, the Intifada began as a response to a very purposeful provocation by Sharon when he along with 200 soldiers and a team of journalists entered the Haram al-Sharif, asserting Israeli sovereignty over an extremely important and sensitive Islamic holy site in Jerusalem.
It now appears that Sharon is currently pushing for an immense reaction from Palestinians. Such an attack would provide the Israeli government with the perfect symbol to condemn Palestinians as terrorists, no different than the group that carried out the attacks in the United States.
For the last week, Israeli officials have been doing everything possible to brand the Palestinians as terrorists in the eyes of the world. Sharon and other officials have repeatedly referred to Arafat as 'another Bin Laden.' The public relations firms hired by Israel have circulated the images of Palestinians celebrating in Nablus after the initial reports of an attack on the Pentagon. Palestinian groups were even accused of committing the attacks.
Last week, the French Ambassador to Israel declared that terror attacks on Israel must be condemned, but that there is a difference between those attacks and the attacks in the US. The Zionist press and establishment immediately branded the Ambassador as an 'anti-Semite' in order to de-legitimize and silence him. All of this must be seen in the context of a heated phone conversation between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon on Friday. Sharon demanded that the Palestinian Authority and Syria be officially and publicly excluded from the American-led coalition to fight terrorism. He stated that these two governments support and harbor terrorists. Instead of being encouraged to join the coalition, he said, they should be branded as enemies and destroyed by the coalition.
But Bush faces a dilemma: he desperately wants the Arab states to join his coalition, but they have agreed to do so only if the coalition focuses on Bin Laden and not on the Palestinians. Israel, on the other hand, wants to include the Palestinian Authority, along with Syria and Iraq, on the list of states that sponsor and harbor terrorism. A terror attack by a Palestinian faction right now would effectively seal the link. It would provide Israel with exactly the opportunity it is looking for to argue before the world that the Palestinian Authority is a terrorist state. The Palestinian resistance would be deemed terrorists by the world and could be openly crushed by the Israelis, with the assistance of the US-led coalition. That is exactly what Sharon is pushing for right now with his assault on the West Bank and Gaza. He is attempting once again to provoke a response from Palestinians - a response that will give him an opportunity to convince the world to help him crush the Palestinians once and for all.
Over the last two weeks, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict has become a symbol in the construction of two major global struggles. Last Tuesday, Palestinian groups were fingered from the very start as responsible for the terror attacks in the United States. Ever since that time, the Israeli government and the Zionist media have not stopped in their efforts to condemn Palestinian resistance as inherently terrorist. They want the Palestinian/Israeli conflict to become a central symbol in the developing global struggle against terrorism. By branding Palestinians as terrorists, the Israelis are attempting to align themselves with the forces of moral authority in the 'war between civilization and terror.' Israel is doing everything in its power to convince the US to declare the Palestinian Authority - and along with it the Palestinian people - to be an enemy. They are waging a powerful campaign to associate Arafat with Bin Laden and the 'forces of terror' in the world. If they manage to do so, and to isolate the Palestinians as terrorists, Israel will have global support for its efforts to annihilate the Palestinian resistance.
On the other hand, one week before the attacks on the US, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict stood out as a key symbol in the global struggle against racism and apartheid. The NGO forum at the World Conference Against Racism made great strides in demonstrating to the world the fact that Israel is a colonial, apartheid state. Over three hundred NGOs from around the world released a strong declaration that highlighted the racist nature of the Israeli state. They declared:
"...the Palestinian people are one such people currently enduring a colonialist, discriminatory military occupation that violates their fundamental human right of self-determination..."
"...we declare and call for an immediate end to the Israeli systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing (as defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court), including uprooting by military attack, and the imposition of any and all restrictions and measures on the population to make life so difficult that the only option is to leave the area, and state terrorism against the Palestinian people, recognizing that all of these methods are designed to ensure the continuation of an exclusively Jewish state with a Jewish majority and the expansion of its borders to gain more land, driving out the indigenous Palestinian population."
"We declare that this alien domination and subjugation with the denial of territorial integrity amounts to colonialism, which denies the fundamental rights of self-determination, independence and freedom of Palestinians."
"We declare Israel as a racist, apartheid state in which Israel's brand of apartheid as a crime against humanity has been characterized by separation and segregation, dispossession, restricted land access, denationalization, "bantustanization" and inhumane acts."
"Appalled by the inhumane acts perpetrated in the maintenance of this new form of apartheid regime through the Israeli state war on civilians including military attacks, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, the imposition of severe restrictions on movement (curfews, imprisonment and besiegement of towns and villages), and systematic collective punishment, including economic strangulation and deliberate impoverishment, denial of the right to food and water, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to housing, the right to education and the right to work."
The NGO forum turned the Palestinian/Israeli conflict into a powerful symbol in the growing movement against racism, globalization, and new forms of colonialism. This movement presents a powerful, progressive challenge to the forces of exploitation and oppression centered in the Western capitalist 'democracies.' The NGO forum focused world attention on the racist nature of the Israeli state. For a rare moment, the world saw the Palestinians aligned with the forces of progress and justice. But only too briefly.
The Israelis have seized the opportunity presented by the attacks in the United States to silence all talk of racism and apartheid. They are attempting to reframe discussion of this conflict in terms of the struggle against terrorism. Those efforts are extraordinarily dangerous, especially considering the current situation in the occupied Palestinian territories and the violence that Israel is using against Palestinians.
The Palestinians are on the brink of what seems like utter destruction at the hands of the Israeli military. The current moment is critical. If Israel is able to frame public discussion of the conflict and to declare the Palestinians terrorists who must be dealt with accordingly, then the future for Palestine is certainly bleak. We must remain focused on demonstrating to the world the racist nature of the Israeli state. We must articulate the Palestinian struggle with the growing movement against racism, colonialism, and global capitalism.
The only hope that Palestinians have shown over the last few months has been in response to the NGO forum. The images of 60,000 people in the streets of Durban demonstrating against Israeli apartheid gave strength to millions of Palestinians living under occupation. In the wake of the terrible attacks in the United States, the Palestinians cannot afford to allow Israel to control the public discourse. Palestine can either become a symbol in the struggle against terror or a symbol in the struggle against oppression. Now perhaps more than ever, it is absolutely imperative that the racist, colonial nature of the Israeli state be openly and publicly discussed throughout the United States and Europe.
(Andy Clarno, currently a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, has been doing dissertation research in Palestine. He was arrested by the Israeli police on Aug 11 at a peaceful protest following the Israeli seizure of the Orient House; his case received some attention in the U.S. press because he is a U.S. citizen. This was, as would be apparent, written before the declaration of ceasefire today.)