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Everyone is predicting a spate of horrific suicide bombings in Israel as Hamas and other Palestinian groups respond to the "targeted assassination" of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (and killing of seven other people) by an Apache helicopter air strike a few days ago. According to MSNBC, Israel’s army chief has stated that Yassir Arafat and the Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah will also be assassinated. I take it for granted that the assassins, proud of their work, convinced of its necessity and goodness, know exactly what they’re doing. They have factored in ghastly reprisals, and have plans about how to follow up.
Some observations and predictions:
1. The foreign policy of the Bush administration has since 9-11 been steered by officials who have a well thought out and clearly articulated plan to affect regime change throughout the Middle East. Such change in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and a number of other Muslim countries is central to the neocons’ world-transforming project. While Israel’s security is not the key issue in Bush Middle East policy, it is a very important secondary one, and U.S. and Israeli policies are closely coordinated.
2. Last October 5, Israel responded to an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Haifa by staging an air strike on Syria, the first time it had bombed Syria in 30 years. Ariel Sharon argued that Damascus "sponsors" Islamic Jihad and "Palestinian terrorism" in general and so Israel was acting in self-defense.
3. While condemned by European leaders, including the British foreign minister, and almost everybody else, the attack was justified by President Bush as necessary to "defend the homeland." (Note: not "your homeland" but "the homeland." Bush seems not to distinguish.) It was praised by leading neocon Richard Perle (then still on the Defense Policy Board), who declared, "I am happy to see the message was delivered to Syria by the Israeli air force, and I hope it is the first of many such messages." Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz stated, "There will have to be change in Syria, plainly."
(This makes me recall the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel—an interesting novelette written around 160 BCE, and incorporated into the Old Testament. The neocons are, in effect, saying: "The handwriting is on the wall; Bashir Assad’s days are numbered; his kingdom will be divided—not between the Medes and the Persians, but— between the Americans and the Israelis." http://www.inisrael.com/golan/ )
4. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, administration point man on Syria, argued last fall in Congress for the "Syria Accountability Act," which was passed, 398-5, by the House of Representatives Oct. 16. (99% approval. Isn’t it great to live in a democracy where well-informed elected officials can express varied views about the Middle East?) Then it sailed through the Senate.
Officially vilifying Syria (which has actually been an ally against al-Qaeda), it accuses Damascus of sponsoring terrorism, amassing weapons of mass destruction, and occupying Lebanon, and applies economic sanctions against the Arab nation. Bolton accuses Syria of allowing "terrorists" to cross its border to abet the resistance in Iraq, receiving some of those elusive WMD from Iraq, and providing banking services for the Iraqi resistance. So there is a long list of charges against Syria, as there was against Iraq, and as there is against Iran—enough to persuade the sufficiently impressionable that Syria should be attacked and occupied.
5. The assassination of the wheelchair-bound paraplegic 75 year old Yassin was condemned by Kofi Annan, and by European leaders, including British foreign minister Jack Straw, but Condoleeza Rice, speaking for the Bush administration, refused to criticize it, merely appealing for everybody in the region to keep calm. While the Bush administration denies any foreknowledge of the attack, it will of course stand by Mr. Sharon, whom Bush with his characteristic distance from the real world has dubbed "a man of peace."
6. The neocons have suffered a series of setbacks, including the highly embarrassing revelations of Bush’s former top anti-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, who charges that Bush demanded intelligence forces concoct links between 9-11 and Iraq to justify an invasion. Anyone paying attention now knows that the Iraq stage of the Terror War was based on lies. The bleeding sore of the occupation saps Bush’s political support, and he and his world-transforming ideologues may be out of jobs come November. That prospect doesn’t make the neocons more humble, but rather more desperate to achieve such pieces of their ambitious program as they might in the next seven months.
7. This month has seen a "human rights" demonstration in Damascus and a couple days of Arab-Kurdish ethnic rioting following a soccer game. These are unusual events in tightly-controlled Syria. There may be an outside hand in them, endeavoring to destabilize the Syrian regime preparatory to some major, externally organized action.
8. A major Hamas suicide bombing would provide a fine pretext for an attack on Syria, perfectly legitimate to anyone predisposed to think Hamas=international terrorism=Syria.
9. At least one Hamas leaflet has suggested that the U.S. bears partial responsibility for Yassin’s assassination: "The Zionists didn’t carry out their operation without getting the consent of the terrorist American administration and it must take responsibility for this crime."
Let’s think about this statement. If the U.S. government can say "you’re for us or against us," and make no distinction between "terrorist organizations" and those who "sponsor" them, surely your good, decent, normal Palestinian on the street can draw a connection between an assassination conducted on the explicit orders of Ariel Sharon (whose government is, as the number one recipient of U.S. foreign aid, subsidized by the U.S. to a mind-boggling $ 3 billion—some say $ 6 billion—per year and enjoys about the most intimate relationship with Washington that any foreign government has ever had) and the American administration. Condoleeza Rice has said the U.S. had no prior knowledge of the assassination, but then she also says honest Richard Clarke’s recent charges about Bush’s handling of the al-Qaeda issue are "ridiculous." The sad fact is that Condi is ridiculous, and her job absolutely requires that she deny U.S. links to assassinations if such occur.
Is the Hamas statement implausible? It seems in fact unlikely that Sharon would undertake his extremely newsworthy action without consulting with the government which subsidizes his own. So Hamas could say: "We make no distinction between those defying international law and assassinating our leaders, and those who sponsor them." Still, it is unlikely that they would undertake an attack on Americans on U.S. soil, however much either al-Qaeda or the neocons might want that (and even be inclined to stage it) in order to exacerbate the confrontation between Islam and the west that they both relish, for their different reasons.
In any case, the statement about "responsibility for this crime" cited above was immediately trumpeted in the U.S. media as a Hamas threat to attack the U.S., something it has never done, would be stupid to do, and probably has no intention of doing. Hamas is not al-Qaeda, however much the Bushites want to conflate all opponents of the U.S. and Israel into a single, simple terroristic Evil. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge immediately indicated that Washington takes "quite seriously" a threat never explicitly made. But Hamas, as it mourns the loss of its founder, and speculates about what forces produced his murder, becomes demonized, al-Qaeda-ized, another object of American fear.
Start worrying now, everybody, that terrorist Hamas, angry about the death of their terrorist founder at the hands of our Israeli friends—a death we support—is going to attack us, because they blame us for it! That’s the message.
Hamas having been hit by a strike condemned by the entire world (except the U.S. and Israel) and having, in perfectly rational response, expressed outrage, now in its injured state becomes more targeted by the U.S. than ever. Henceforth whatever Sharon does against Hamas, he will be able to depict as an effort to defend not merely his country but the American Homeland threatened by these angry anti-American Palestinians. And whatever measures the Bushites take against "Palestinian terrorism" will be undertaken as "Homeland Defense" measures as well, the Israeli and American homeland boundaries having been thoroughly blurred long since.
10. Let us say Perle’s dream comes true and the Israeli air force does attack pro-Hamas Syria. Let’s say it does so big-time, Sharon-style, and does major damage. Enough to cause enough disorder for the U.S. to argue that a deteriorating situation requires international intervention. The Iraq attack required months of preparation, but intervention in Syria will happen very quickly, coming like a thief in the night as it did in Haiti. Perle has suggested that there are troops to spare in Iraq that can occupy "weak" Syria in short order. Even if Israeli action provides the context, Israeli forces won’t be needed, and U.S. action will be lent some thin international legitimacy if a few hundred "coalition" troops participate. Thus a second Arab nation will become Americanizedly "free," while Palestinians infuriated by these events will commit acts that will justify the "ethnic cleansing" of the West Bank.
I truly hope my imagination has gotten the better of me, that I am a false prophet, and that what I describe will not come to pass.
Hands off Syria!
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org