The United States is entirely correct to insist that there can be no justification for the deliberate and indiscriminate use of violence - i.e. terrorism - against civilian non-combattants in political conflicts. Yet in the Middle East it has honoured this principle mainly in the breach, and applied it in a manner at best laughable.
A particularly instructive example was provided this month, on the 12th of April. From Jenin in the West Bank, incontrovertible evidence of the largest Israeli bloodbath since Sabra-Chatilla began to emerge despite Israel’s systematic efforts to conceal the atrocity from the media. Later that afternoon, a Palestinian woman detonated herself in central Jerusalem, killing six Israeli civilians and wounding approximately sixty others. The only suspects in Jenin are the Israeli political leadership and military. The Jerusalem attack was carried out by a militia loosely affiliated with the Palestinian Authority.
Given that dozens and probably hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed in Jenin - Israel remains determined to prevent us from finding out exactly how many - the very minimum a rational observer would have expected from the United States would be a sharp condemnation of both events, an unambiguous US demand that both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders explicitly condemn the terrorist acts perpetrated by their own citizens, and an equally strong appeal to Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat to punish those responsible to the fullest extent of the law.
What transpired instead was shocking even by the double standards the current administration has accustomed us to. On the one hand the Bush administration repeatedly and vociferously denounced the terrorist attack in Jerusalem, demanded that Arafat explicitly condemn it as well, and - at a time when the Palestinian security forces were being systematically destroyed by Israel and could not even issue a parking ticket - ordered these forces to take immediate action against Palestinian militant organisations. And lest there be any doubt that Washington held the Palestinian leader personally responsible for not having prevented the attack, Secretary of State Colin Powell - in the full knowledge that what little remains of Arafat’s office is surrounded by dozens of Israeli tanks and that he cannot even flush the toilet without Israeli consent - abruptly postponed a planned meeting with him.
In its approach to Israel the United States was a little more forgiving. In fact, “Jenin” failed to grace the lips of even a single American official. Not only did Washington refuse to condemn the atrocity, it failed to even recognise that one had been perpetrated, or to more diplomatically request that unconfirmed but disturbing reports be promptly investigated. Indeed, on 12 April the White House would not go beyond praising Sharon as “a man of peace,” whereas Powell made it a point to “welcome” Israel’s ongoing West Bank offensive.
Terrible as the Jerusalem suicide bombing undoubtedly was, its victims were either dead or hospitalised by the time Washington reacted. Many in Jenin were by contrast still bleeding to death from treatable wounds under the rubble on account of the continuing Israeli siege, which included a systematic denial of medical care and even water. This made Washington’s see-no-evil approach to Sharon’s work in progress nothing short of lethal.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, America’s divergent reactions to Palestinian organisational and Israeli state terrorism this past Friday is no recent development. Throughout the past 18 months of conflict, the United States has condemned each and every killing of an Israeli civilian, and more often than not also the death of Israeli soldiers on active duty in occupied territory. At the same time, it has not once - I repeat, not in a single instance - explicitly condemned the killing of a Palestinian civilian. This despite the fact that many more Palestinian than Israeli civilians have been killed, that most Palestinian casualties have been civilians, and that voluminous evidence produced by local, Israeli and international human rights organisations conclusively demonstrates that many if not most of these have been victims of the deliberate and indiscriminate Israeli use of force.
It appears to be the current position of the Bush administration that an Israeli soldier killing Palestinians inside a West Bank refugee camp is engaged in legitimate self-defense, a Palestinian police officer shooting back at him a terrorist, and his dead parents and children the victims of their own leadership rather than of those who shoot, shell, and kill them. With its appalling disregard for Palestinian life, the United States has cavalierly squandered the sympathy it garnered in the region in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks.
American credibility in the region is also at a point immediately adjacent to absolute zero. Palestinians and other Arabs have watched with a mixture of contempt and amusement as President Bush successively gave his unconditional support for Israel’s current offensive, appealed for a withdrawal “as soon as possible”, called for it to be implemented “without delay”, with a menacing scowl stated “I meant what I said”, finally authorised Powell to use the words “now” and “immediately,” and the following morning allowed the Secretary of State to take satisfaction with receiving no timetable at all from Sharon. A number of Arab commentators claim that US Middle East policy is again being held hostage by Tel Aviv. Most recognise that if Washington genuinely wanted Israeli forces out of Palestinian cities, they would simply vanish.
It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that removing Arafat from the scene will under the best of circumstances have no impact at all on the level of violence, and that terminating what UN Secretary General Kofi Annan terms the “illegal occupation” of Palestinian territory by Israel will in conjunction with a just settlement of the refugee question bring it to an immediate end. Indeed, it is high time for the United States to begin addressing the Israeli causes of this conflict with the same zeal it has approached its Palestinian symptoms. Showing equal respect for Palestinian life, at a time when so much of it is being cut short by American weaponry funded by the American taxpayer, would be a good place to start.
Mouin Rabbani is director of the Palestinian American Research Center in the West Bank town of Ramallah.