Sharon Is Trapped…And So Are We

Time was when Bali would have been the story of the year, the most violent act in 12 months, to be recalled with horror in December as the most terrible of crimes. But Bali was just the story of the month. And soon, perhaps, the Karachi bombings and the Bali bombings and the Mombasa bombings will be just stories of the week. See how easily we have acclimatized to death on a vast scale? What is to be this week’s nightmare? How many innocents will be killed by the time you open next week’s Independent on Sunday?

But last week’s killings in Kenya and the attempt to bring down an Israeli airliner were far more important than most people realize. For by bringing Israel into the loop–by allowing Israel to become a partner in President Bush’s asinine “war on terror”–al-Qa’ida has ensured that the Arab Muslim world will henceforth give its real if quiescent sympathy to Osama bin Laden. Outraged as many Arabs were at the international crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001, few will object to an attack against Israelis, however cruel, while Israel’s suppression of the Palestinians continues. If al-Qa’ida is now against Israel, Arabs will give their support.

With utter predictability, Ariel Sharon walked into the al-Qa’ida trap. He vowed “revenge”. Thus any strike against the al-Qa’ida–by America, by Britain, by Australia–will be seen as an Israeli attack. America and Britain and Israel are now fighting on the same side. In the short term–and in his mendacious attempt to link Yasser Arafat with Mr bin Laden–Mr Sharon may have gained some advantage. At last, Israel’s war on Palestinian “terror” can be placed on the same footing as its new war against al-Qa’ida. No longer will Mr Sharon’s ghastly spokesmen have to justify their army’s brutality towards Palestinians. Israel is fighting the same struggle of “good against evil” that President Bush invented for us just over a year ago.

But for Israelis, there is one big error in all this. By responding to al-Qa’ida’s wicked assault on its civilians, it is taking on a mighty big opponent. For Mr bin Laden’s men are not the hopeless suiciders that the Palestinians produce from their foetid refugee camps. The Afghanistan-trained men of Mr bin Laden’s legion do not spring from the squalor of Gaza or the occupied masses of the West Bank. They are ruthless, highly motivated, intelligent–just for once, William Safire was right when he called them “vicious warriors”–and they may be more than a match for Israel’s third-rate intelligence men. Israel’s rabble of an army can kill child stone-throwers with ease. Al-Qa’ida is a quite different opponent. And if Mr Sharon wants to take on Mr bin Laden, he is ensuring that Israel goes to war with its most dangerous enemy in 54 years. Better by far to let the Americans tackle al-Qa’ida–and even they don’t seem to be all that successful–than bring Israel into the battle.

Now, however, Messrs Bush and Blair will have to watch in silence as Mr Sharon bludgeons the occupied Palestinians into further submission. Israel is now engaged in our war, on our side, and whatever Israel does will now have the imprimatur of the “war on terror”. Israel is now on the side of the good guys and if it kills nine children when its air force wants to assassinate a Hamas leader, the White House will not even be able to call it “heavy-handed”. (Incidentally, it’s instructive to note that while the child-killing in Gaza was “heavy-handed” in the words of Mr Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, the killing of 12 Israeli soldiers and policemen was described by the same gentleman as a “heinous crime”.)

But let’s move to one side for a moment. Has anyone spotted something amiss about the latest episode in the “war on terror”? Has it dawned on any of the chickenhawks in the US administration or in Downing Street that they are losing the initiative? Has anyone noticed that Mr bin Laden is writing the script? Al-Qa’ida attacks New York so we attack Afghanistan. Al-Qa’ida attacks in Bali and the Australian government re-pledges its support for America. Al-Qa’ida threatens America and so we murder four of its members in Yemen. And our governments–even the Irish last week–respond not by protecting us, not by uniting in a new, inspiring system of international justice, but by producing laws that will diminish our freedoms, our rights and our liberty. Under attack by al-Qa’ida? Let’s tap into the telephones and emails of our innocent citizens. Let’s frisk every Muslim who goes through our airports. Let’s spy on our own people. How Mr bin Laden–hardly a man of humor, as I can personally attest–must be smiling.

Now Americans have got to live with the Department of Homeland Security. The Teutonic roots of this name–Homeland translated as Heimat in the Reich–are perhaps best ignored for the present. But already, travelers in the US are finding themselves targeted at airports because of their skin-color or their religion or their jobs.

Here’s just one small example. I’ve recently finished another series of lectures at American universities. Americans are great people; they are bright and they want to learn the truth about the Middle East, not least because they realize. that their newspapers and television stations lie to them about the region. I give my lectures free of charge. But on this last trip, I notched up my 21st consecutive “random” security check at an airport boarding gate. Every time I travel on an American aircraft, up pops this little coding on my boarding card and all my hand-baggage is taken to bits.

Now I don’t mind this at all. The security staff are polite, underpaid and often very friendly–I even persuaded one to turn up at my talk in Manhattan–but the origin of my journey, Beirut, or the number of pariah visas in my passport or perhaps just my reporting, has got me on to the American security list. The boarding card “security” coding is in fact quite easy to decipher–and if a numbskull like me can work it out, be sure that the bad guys can–but the point is that, yet again, a perfectly law-abiding civilian is paying the price for Mr bin Laden.

So here’s a few thoughts. Why must we let al-Qa’ida write the script? Why don’t we set up the machinery of real international law? Why don’t we talk about “justice” rather than revenge? Why don’t we have international tribunals so that those who wish to kill us can have their time in court? I don’t want al-Qa’ida’s members blown to pieces in Yemen by Mr Bush’s hit squads. I want to see them tried, fairly and by due process. Of course, the Americans will whinge and whine about this. They will rabbit on about how Americans may be taken to court for political ends, about how American troops might be liable for war crimes trials–and given some of their behavior in Afghanistan, I can well see why they would worry about this. I can see, too, why Mr Sharon would worry that he, too, could end up in court on war crimes charges for his involvement in the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. I don’t know if Mr Sharon is guilty. But I think he deserves a fair trial.

No, I’m not equating al-Qa’ida and Mr Sharon, nor am I associating the innocent with the guilty. But it’s time we wrote the script to this terrible conflict. It’s time we stopped crushing our own freedoms. It’s time we talked about law and fairness and justice. Not just for criminals. But for the whole Middle East.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.