"Peace in the Middle East" may make for a snappy bumper sticker. But a more relevant message to send to fellow motorist–and to the presidential motorcade in particular–is "Free Palestine." Because getting that message right would not only mean peace between Israel and its neighbors, but also the elimination of the greatest reason terrorists target the United States and its allies in the first place.
Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, with smoke plumes still rising from the mountains of rubble that used to be the Twin Towers, the president assured the world that, "No group or nation should mistake America’s intentions: We will not rest until terrorist groups of global reach have been found, have been stopped and have been defeated."
For all the "have beens,"however, the president now stands on the precipice of becoming a has-been. And if there’s one thing anyone possessing a brain stem can be certain of today, it’s that most of the terrorists plotting attacks against the United States and its friends haven’t been found, haven’t been stopped and haven’t been defeated.
The reasons are myriad, but if one outshines the rest it’s a little place called Bethlehem–where Jesus was born–along with other cities that together make up the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Year after year, as it has been for decades, this elephant in the room goes ignored, even as it sways from side to side in frustration and rams its massive body into the wall, causing everyone’s cocktails to almost spill, but not quite.
Despite several UN resolutions, the world has been unable–or unwilling–to dislodge Israel from the territories for half a century. That in turn has given Israel free rein to force Palestinians to live very much like cattle: daily schlepping their way toward checkpoints where, single-file, the young, the old, the infirm and the pregnant endure being humiliated by Israeli soldiers barely out of high school, with those fortunate enough to pass through only finding another checkpoint a few hundred yards away.
Rinse, and repeat.
Speaking of which, a few months following the attack on the World Trade Center, President Bush addressed a cattlemen’s convention in Denver.
"Thank you all very much . . . I really appreciate my new hat. I’m looking forward to wearing it in Crawford," he told the ranchers. "I don’t get to spend enough time there but, when I do, I really enjoy being around the cows."
A sentiment no doubt reciprocated. But then the president, his eyes growing beady and his lips pursing with intensity, shifted gears.
"I intend to find the killers wherever they may hide, and run them down, and bring them to justice. They think there’s a cave deep enough, they’re wrong. They think they’re going to run out of patience, they are wrong," Bush told the convention, whose members had assembled to agree on how to get American cattle to thrash the bovine competition in places like Poland and France. "Those who hurt America and those who continue to want to harm America will not be able to escape the long reach of American justice."
Any cattleman who’d just walked in might’ve been forgiven for thinking the president had just declared war on the European countryside. Others may have had their minds on more bullish issues to notice the president had probably meant to say, "They think we’re going to run out of patience." But that isn’t the point.
The point is the president’s speech amounted to an empty proclamation. Namely because it ignored the United States’ role in the demise of a people whose plight has become a rallying call for terrorists everywhere. Using terror as a military tactic has long been seen as the freedom fighter’s most effective tool against a conventional army. But it’s a view that turns the task of fighting terrorism on its head–because just who is and who isn’t the terrorist is never as simple as one, two, three.
What is so conventional, after all, about the world’s strongest armed forces fighting a relative piss-ant of a military with the invading army’s primary objective being to produce enough "shock and awe" in the general population that a large portion of it ends up dead? And that’s just Iraq. Or it was. Today, neither shock now awe accompanies the grim awareness shared by most Iraqis that their country, once the envy of the Middle East, has effectively ceased to exist.
Meanwhile in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s indiscriminate firing of Katyushas into Israel qualifies it as a bona fide terrorist organization. But if there was anything conventional about Israel’s subsequent bombing of a good part of Lebanon into smithereens, it was that Israel used conventional weapons instead of going all out and dropping a few nukes.
The question of who is terrorizing whom in that ongoing conflict is further complicated–or is it?–if one considers that of the 150 or so Israelis killed by Hezbollah, over 100 were soldiers. Whereas of the 1,300 or so Lebanese killed by the Israeli Defense Forces, the vast majority were civilians, many of them babies whose bodies continue to be extracted from the rubble.
"The terrorists are fighting freedom with all their cunning and cruelty because freedom is their greatest fear. And they should be afraid, because freedom is on the march," the president said during the 2004 Republican National Convention. He might as well have been White Goodman (Ben Stiller’s character in the movie "Dodgeball") saying to his nemesis, "Go ahead, make your jokes, Mr. Jokey . . . Joke-maker. But let me hit you with some knowledge: quit now . . ."
Or else what? Talk is cheap, especially to would-be terrorists convinced that their communities are already under attack, and whose ranks are steadily swelling.
Yet long before Iranians gave any serious thought to learning how to produce pretty mushroom clouds designed to erase humanity in broad strokes, or before Iraqis had reason to think anything but pleasant thoughts about America, or before the Taliban decided that playing host to Al-Qaeda might add some pizazz to a life bogged down by keeping girls out of school and maintaining strict guidelines concerning the lengths of men’s beards–there was Palestine.
Or rather, there wasn’t. Which isn’t to say there’s been a lack of Palestinians. They’re all over–in the United States, Europe, Asia, the Middle East (in Jordan, Palestinians outnumber the natives)–everywhere, that is, except in an independent Palestine. And though it may be tempting blame a group like Hamas for recruiting the suicide bombers that have so long bedeviled Israel, that would still leave two important considerations out of the equation.
First, that Palestinians aren’t fighting Israel; they’re fighting Israel’s illegal occupation of their territories, and see no clear incentive to stop. And second, that a teenager about to graduate high school abruptly finding himself at the funeral of his one-year-old sister, killed by an Israeli bomb as she slept in her crib, peacefully sucking on a pacifier and dreaming baby dreams, is unlikely to need much recruiting.
Abandoned, stateless and impoverished (and were that not enough, targeted) many Palestinians–be they college students, professors, plumbers or young widows–turn to resistence, which often includes blowing themselves up in crowds of Israelis, because in their minds to not resist would be akin to joining the living dead.
Far from being religious zealots, most Palestinians simply feel they’ve nothing left to lose. Al-Qaeda and other global terrorist organizations, which support the Palestinian cause but also have their own, more intractable agendas against the United States and its allies, appear to have even less.
In the meantime, the United States continues to lavish not only money but also military assistance on Israel while putting no pressure on it to abandon the territories and to rely on securing its borders from within those borders, which to terrorists amounts to the U.S. foreign policy equivalent of "Bring them on."
Anyone who ever got the chance to ask the president, without being hurled out onto the White House lawn, "Why so much moolah and military technology with no strings attached?" would cause the beady-eyed look of resolve to reappear, and prompt a reply, uttered between puckered lips, that went something like, "Well, you know what, why not? It’s them Hamas and their terrorist buddies, Iran and the whole rest of them, that are to blame for the whole damn mess."
"Yeah, but aren’t Palestinians being"
"Sure, they’re bein’ occupied, doggone it, but Israel’s the only democracy in the whole God-forsaken valley, for Christ’s sake, tryin’ to protect itself from heathens that–believe you me–you would not wanna have over for dinner. Son, you forget already? You’re either with us or . . ."
For their part, of course, Al-Qaeda and Co., have not forgotten. Not about the United States’ campaign, at the point of a gun, to spread democracy to places that just so happened to be gushing oil, nor its ongoing threats against Iran–where, incidentally, women drive cars, have successful careers, vote and hold office.
Nor have they forgotten about the United States’ dogged support for regimes like the Saudi royal family, which reigns supreme (so much for spreading democracy) in a land where, not only do women not drive, they’re never even seen.
Yet the first thing to roll off their tongues is always "Free Palestine." It is their constant refrain. Which is why only a free Palestine, not a bumper sticker weathered by rain, has any hope of silencing their singing.
SALAH OBEID can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org