Bitter, Bitter Tears
Twin Terrors / PALESTINE
Bitter, bitter tears
Ali Helou, 25, looked over his shoulder as he led his nine-months pregnant young wife, Amineh, over the hills leading to Lebanon. Unbeknown to him, it would be the last time he would see his home. It was 1948 and Jewish troops hoping to establish the state of Israel in Palestine were shelling Arab villages, forcing residents to flee. Only a few kilometres away from the Lebanese border Amineh gave birth under an olive tree. Eight months later, at a refugee camp in Lebanon, the baby contracted typhoid and died. The couple joined the more than 800,000 Palestinians packed into refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt believing their exile would only last a few weeks.
But on 14 May 1948 – hours before the British mandate was to expire in Palestine – the state of Israel was declared. Just 12 minutes after the British mandate ended, US President Harry Truman recognized the newly created country. The move shocked the Arab world – and planted the first seed of hatred against the US.
Some 53 years later, America itself came under attack. It was deplorable and horrific. But it was also a wake-up call. Those 53 years of uncontrollable rage culminated in one message: US Government – you’re hated.
Successive US governments must have known about this pan-Arab rage which has been boiling for years. They must have realized that it was their unflinching support for Israel which fed the fury. And yet their foreign policy in the Middle East remained largely unchanged. If anything, America’s ties to Israel seemed to grow stronger – so much so that some in the Arab world could no longer see a difference between the two states.
‘America has been very heavily associated with the Israeli position irrespective of whether it is rooted in international law or not,’ explained Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law. ‘The veto of the US at the Security Council consistently favours Israel – often in a way that puts Israel and the US on one side and everyone else, including western European governments, on the other.’
United Nations Resolution 194, which was issued in 1948, stated that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return home or be given compensation and UN resolution 242 demanded the return of the territories which Israel captured during the Six-Day War in June 1967. Both remain unfulfilled, ignored by Israel and the US.
US aid and weapons continue to make their way to Israel, which receives more than five billion dollars in aid annually. But even this is not all: a Congressional Research Service report states that from 1994 to 1998, Israel received $29 billion from the US in waived loans.
For its part, Israel is free to spend the aid as it pleases – the only condition attached to the money earmarked as military aid is that about 75 per cent of it has to be spent in the United States.
Artillery-shell casings have become traditional umbrella stands in many Arab homes. And there on the side of the shell – fired courtesy of Israel – is a familiar phrase: ‘Made in the USA’.
Arabs cannot forget America’s green light for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which led to the deaths of 20,000 civilians, the crippling siege of Beirut and an occupation that only ended in May last year. On 16 September 1982, the Israeli army cordoned off the Sabra and Chatila camps, fired flares at night to illuminate the skies and authorized the entry of its Lebanese Christian militia ally. Up to 2,000 Palestinians were butchered. The US condemned the massacre but failed to insist on an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.
Instead, within a few months, the USS New Jersey, a World War Two battleship, was firing dozens of 40-millimetre shells into the mountains above Beirut, destroying houses and villages.
That action, coupled with general resentment about America’s unwavering support for Israel, led to devastating suicide attacks on the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983, in which 63 people were killed, and on the US Marine barracks, in which 241 American soldiers died.
Many Arabs condemn US Middle East policy as operating double standards. The US turned a blind eye to Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon, but mounted an international coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait when oil supplies were threatened. There is the matter of America’s veto of UN resolutions against Israel, sometimes in opposition to the rest of the world. When Hizbullah used to fire its antiquated World War Two rockets across the border at Israeli troops (usually in retaliation for the killing of Lebanese civilians), it was described as ‘terrorism’. But when Israeli artillery guns shelled a UN base in south Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians, it was accepted as a ‘mistake’. It’s considered unacceptable for an Arab or Islamic nation to develop a nuclear bomb yet perfectly acceptable for Israel to have 300 nuclear weapons.
‘The Americans do not care to put in place standards of governmental behaviour in the region like those they consider important for their way of life or Europe’s,’ said Chibli Mallat. ‘They gloat about Israeli democracy without paying any attention to the excesses of the Israeli Government towards the non-Jews in Israel who are second-class citizens in the country in ways which would be absolutely intolerable for any minority in the US.’ And while America says that it stands for freedom, human rights and democracy, it colludes with Arab governments who represent neither and who often repress their own people.
‘Arabs see the behaviour of America as being at complete odds with their natural demand for democracy and justice which would bring a decent way of life for themselves and their children,’ said Mallat.
In September 2000, the Al-Aqsa Intifada in the occupied Palestinian territories erupted. Arabs watched alarmed as Israeli tanks and missiles claimed an almost daily toll of Palestinian lives. They waited for a restraining order from the US. None came.
People all over the Arab world demonstrated in the streets in support of the Intifada. Except for verbal condemnation their leaders did little to pressure the US into stopping Israel’s assaults. ‘People perceived their regimes as kneeling in front of the Americans,’ said Suheil Natour, a Palestinian affairs analyst and a council member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
During the 1990 Gulf War, the US Government secured its position in the region. Declarations of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ didn’t fool the Arab public. ‘They are exploiting the wealth of the Third World, including the Arab world – especially the oil,’ said Natour. ‘The people see their wealth being robbed by these multinational companies and funds of the Arab world taken to the American Treasury.’
Meanwhile, 2,000 kilometres away, in a rocky and mountainous land, a CIA-sponsored militia was mounting a war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 40 countries joined Afghanistan’s fight between 1982 and 1992. Their leader was Osama bin Laden.
‘He was trained to kill on ideology,’ said Ahmad Moussalli, professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut and author of several books about Islamic fundamentalism. ‘He and what’s known as the Afghan Arabs were trained to fight on the grounds that the Soviets were unbelievers. Their psyche was propped up to kill because of a difference in faith.’
In 1991, many of the Afghan Arabs returned home only to find ‘infidels’ – American troops – in their own holy land, Saudi Arabia. ‘It’s like if you had a Muslim army surrounding the Vatican – would the West accept it?’ said Moussalli. While the majority of Muslims interpret Islam peacefully, the Afghani Arabs do not. ‘They see America dominating their lives, supporting Israel and exploiting them,’ said Moussalli. ‘They think there is no way of penetrating the system except with terrorism and violence.’
Despite widespread condemnation of the 11 September attacks in the Arab and Islamic world, leaders know that there is little they can do to curb their people’s anger towards the US. American rhetoric in the wake of the attacks notwithstanding, the violence was not against ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’.
‘It’s an attack against injustice and the exploitation of non-Western people,’ said Moussalli. ‘What do they want? They want independence from the West as they believe they have been made subservient. They want Palestinians to be treated like human beings and to have their own state and they want to establish an Islamic state.’
Banned from participating in their countries’ politics, their newspapers confiscated and their parties banned, radical groups have split from the mainstream Islamic movement and turned to violence.
‘In the long run this is a symptom of a deeper disease that has to be treated,’ according to Moussalli. ‘If you want to eradicate terrorism you have to understand the root causes of that. You can repress a people for a decade – even for two or three. But the time will come when they will go against their regimes and against those who protect their regimes – the Western powers.’
Reem Haddad writes the regular Letter from Lebanon