Pondering Osama Bin Laden’s killing on 1 May, I found myself linking that event to another that took place 63 years ago in Palestine. It was not that Palestinians ever supported Bin Laden significantly, although some of his messages resonated with them. For example, in October 2010, he wrote to French citizens, “How is it right for you to occupy our countries and kill our women and children and expect to live in peace and security?”
Any oppressed Palestinian suffering under Israel’s occupation in the West Bank or Gaza could have written that too — without ever endorsing any of Bin Laden’s crimes. Bin Laden took on the cause of Palestine in the 1980s, but especially after the 1991 Gulf War. However, it was not this but rather the parallels I saw between the two situations that struck a chord.
For those in New York and Washington who were jubilantly celebrating in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing, the issue had nothing to do with Palestine. For them, a man who had masterminded the attacks of 11 September 2001 — that came to be known simply as 9/11 — and caused such pain and suffering had received his just desserts. None of the revelers paused to ask whether this was a legal action commensurate with the much-vaunted US promotion of democracy and the rule of law. It was not.
The killing was no less than a summary execution in which the US played judge, jury, executioner and funeral director, with no accountability to anyone. The hasty disposal of Bin Laden’s body in the sea before anyone could see it or verify what had really happened was neither Islamic nor lawful. Pakistan, which was the theater where America’s battle with Bin Laden was played out, and which should have been the main actor, was relegated the role of incompetent bystander instead, unable to resist American demands.
For many Arabs, who neither supported nor approved of Bin Laden, the operation nevertheless came across as a shocking display of US arrogance and high-handedness, no matter how understandable the history behind it. From the start, it had been American imperatives alone that drove the campaign against Bin Laden, irrespective of the cost to the countries alleged to be implicated in his activities. After 11 September 2001 the US fixation with him launched devastating wars on Afghanistan and Iraq from which those countries may never recover.
Thanks to this policy, three major Islamic states have now been destabilized and the lives of their citizens lost or blighted. In Pakistan, terrorism-linked fatalities shot up from 200 in 2003 to a current 35,000, and in Iraq hundreds of thousands have died since the US-led invasion of 2003 and more are still dying. No citizen of these shattered countries if asked would consider this a price worth paying for a US-inspired “war on terror.” Nor is it likely that US President Barack Obama’s patronizing assertion in his 1 May speech after announcing Bin Laden’s death that the fight was not with Islam did anything to reassure Muslims.
Killing Bin Laden might have been sweet revenge and given a boost to President Obama’s re-election chances, but when the glow is over its after-effects in terrorist retaliation will likely strike many countries, including the US itself. Yet none of this deflected America from its obsession with Bin Laden and its thirst for retribution. And it is precisely this assertion of primacy, where western needs have precedence over anyone else’s, in total disregard for the consequences to others that recalls the Palestinian example to mind.
A western decision to resolve Europe’s problem with its Jews led in 1948 to the creation of Israel in my homeland, Palestine. We were never consulted or involved, but we paid an exorbitant price for Israel’s establishment in lost lives, land, property, and even history. The underlying premise for this act was truly astounding: that another party, the Jews, no matter how tragic their sufferings, had a superior claim to my country than I did, that Jews had primary rights over my homeland because of their history in Europe which I, a native, could not challenge.
The effects of this on me and the millions of other exiles apparently counted for nothing. That is the basis of Israel’s rejection of the right to Palestinian return from an exile caused by Israel itself. Growing up in England, I was shocked at how my story was consistently ignored or denied, as if I were lying or hallucinated. In America, where blind support for Israel is de rigeur, this rejection of my story was even more extreme.
How refreshing it would be if, after all this bloodshed, America were to turn over a new leaf: to study the causes of conflicts, not just their effects on the US and its allies. Following 11 September 2001, Obama, then an obscure senator, commented presciently about the need to raise the hopes of “embittered children” around the globe. As a powerful president today, he must revisit that sentiment and introduce a new paradigm: that injustice is the basis of conflict, especially in Palestine, and to address it is the only way to world peace. This plea will probably fall on inattentive ears, but if he can help me and my fellow Palestinians go home, he will have ended the bitterest conflict of all.
Ghada Karmi is co-director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies, University of Exeter.