BEATING BIN LADEN IN THE WEST BANK

By JOANNE MARINER
Friday, Oct. 19, 2001

While Osama bin Laden himself may be hiding out in Afghanistan, his network of supporters is believed to be global in scope. Even more crucially, in terms of the threat that he poses, some of the grievances on which bin Laden purports to act resonate with many in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Any serious, long-term effort to fight terrorism will have to take this latter factor into account.

Bin Laden's real concerns appear to center more on the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia than on our policies with regard to Israel and the West Bank, but he has recently taken pains to portray himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. In doing so he may have found a responsive audience. Certainly the United States, perceived as Israel's champion and main patron, would be unwise to ignore the issue. For if there is any specific problem that rankles the wider Arab and Islamic public, including its most moderate members, it is Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Reasonable people may differ as to the wisdom and probable efficacy of U.S. military action in Afghanistan, but no one believes that a military response alone will be sufficient to prevent future terrorist acts. Emphasizing the multifaceted nature of the counterterrorism effort, U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that this is a war to be fought on many fronts, requiring financial, diplomatic, and law enforcement strategies as much as, or more than, military action.

On the diplomatic front, efforts to revive the moribund Middle East peace process are now crucial. This is not a matter of appeasing terrorists, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently suggested; instead, it means finding a solution to longstanding injustices. It is the right thing to do, both in principle and for pragmatic reasons.

Why Do They Hate Us?

"Why do they hate us?" asked Newsweek magazine in an October 15 cover story that explored the root causes of terrorist rage. The answers are various and even contradictory, at least as described by commentators who have addressed the issue since September 11. They range from U.S. support of corrupt and repressive Arab regimes, to our proclaimed love of freedom and democracy, to our materialistic culture, to our recognition of women's rights, to, on their part, a fundamentalist rejection of modernity itself.

Whatever the causes of this hatred, it is obvious that no policy that the U.S might adopt would satisfy bin Laden or his dedicated followers. Nor should we have any interest in acceding to their demands. But Americans do need to ask themselves why the extremists' appeal sweeps so far beyond the radical fringe, as demonstrations across the Arab and Muslim worlds have shown.

If the U.S. is serious about building a solid and effective international coalition to fight terror, we will have to persuade the moderate Arab and Muslim public of the justice of our cause. This does not mean convincing the terrorists, nor even the people in the streets demonstrating in their favor. Rather, it means convincing the much larger swath of the Arab and Muslim world that views U.S. policy goals with extreme suspicion. A significant contributor to that distrust is, of course, U.S. actions with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Manipulating the Palestinian Issue

On October 7, the day that American missiles started raining down on Afghanistan, a videotaped message from bin Laden aired on Al-Jazeera television, going from there to the rest of the world. Without peace in Palestine, there will be no peace for America, bin Laden announced. This call to arms was meant to appeal to disgruntled Palestinians, of whom there are many, but also to their sympathizers across the Arab and Muslim world.

Even more recently, Al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith emphasized abuses against Palestinians in his televised threats against the United States and its citizens. Warning that President Bush should not forget Muhammad al-Durrah, a Palestinian child killed by Israeli troops on the Gaza Strip, he declared that violence against the United States would continue until, among other things, the country ended its assistance "to the Jews in Palestine."

Yet Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has adamantly opposed Al Qaeda's opportunistic embrace of the Palestinian cause. Indeed, last week his security forces fired on Palestinian demonstrators who carried posters of bin Laden, killing two.

Cognizant, perhaps, of missteps made during the Gulf War, when the Palestinians declared their support for Iraq in the face of U.S.-led military action, Arafat seems anxious to repress all signs of Palestinian support of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. His own statements regarding the September 11 attacks have, moreover, been clear: he condemned them as "dangerous and unacceptable," as did other Palestinian lawmakers.

Arafat's clear refusal to make common cause with bin Laden may cost him support, particularly among the alienated Palestinian youth who are already attracted to more extremist alternatives. And if Arafat's moderation strengthens the hand of Hamas and Hezbollah, a likely possibility if the situation continues to stagnate, then the fight against terrorism will surely suffer.

Despite these risks, the Israeli government has shown little interest in moderating its abusive policies. To the contrary, some Israeli officials have, since September 11, demonstrated an alarming willingness to exploit the crisis. Days after the attacks, the Israeli defense minister bragged, "It is a fact that we have killed 14 Palestinians in Jenin, Kabatyeh and Tammum, with the world remaining absolutely silent." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went so far as to call Arafat "our bin Laden."

A Diplomatic Offensive

Just a week ago, President Bush made his first public statements in favor of a Palestinian state. Now it is time for his administration to put real effort into revitalizing the Middle East peace process and pressuring Israel to stop abuses against Palestinians.

Since violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis erupted in late September of last year, the eight-year-old Oslo peace process has been in shambles. While the Bush administration has, until now, showed little eagerness to use its influence to revive peace negotiations, the current crisis should inject new urgency into the quest for a just end to the conflict.

Stopping terrorism will take more than bombs, and will have to look far beyond Afghanistan. Indeed, in the long run, a diplomatic offensive in Israel and the West Bank may be as crucial to preventing future terrorist attacks as any military action the United States chooses to undertake.


Joanne Mariner works as a human rights lawyer in New York. Her previous column on responding to the September 11 attacks can be found in the FindLaw archive. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.

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