Turning into Israel?

Outraged by President Bush's embrace of Ariel Sharon and the bloody U.S. assault on Fallujah, the Arab world is linking America's occupation with Israel's. That's ominous.

Published April 16, 2004 7:24PM (EDT)

One year after Baghdad fell to victorious U.S. troops, the Americans had to conquer the country all over again. The great rebellion of April 2004 expelled the U.S. from much of the capital, humiliated coalition allies, cut supply and communications lines to the south, and revealed a reservoir of popular hatred for the U.S. among both some Sunni Arabs in Fallujah and some Shiites in their cities. But perhaps the most ominous development for the U.S. was that the events tied together two occupations and two intifadas, or popular uprisings -- Iraq and Palestine.

In his press conference of April 13, President Bush gave several reasons for cracking down on Iraqi insurgents. He said their motivation was the same as those who set off bombs in Jerusalem; he tied them to the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, executed by al-Qaida in part for being Jewish. He also cited Shiite radical Muqtada al-Sadr's support for the Palestinian Hamas organization and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah party. He gave as one reason for having gone to war against Saddam Hussein the former dictator's support for Palestinian terrorists. In this speech, he presented the Iraq war and its violent aftermath as an extension of the Israeli struggle to subjugate the Palestinians and Hezbollah.

Before the war, Bush connected nonexistent dots between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. Now he and his neoconservative brain trust are mapping the Iraq conflict onto the Likud Party agenda in Palestine. This time, however, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy -- and one that will have devastating repercussions for U.S. interests in both Iraq and the entire Arab world.

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is so central to U.S. diplomacy in the region that it cannot help affecting every other policy imperative, including Iraq. Many Arabs, including Iraqis, initially looked upon the U.S. as an honest broker, but its reputation has gradually been sullied. The U.S., for instance, had long opposed the aggressive Israeli colonization of the West Bank and Gaza as an obstacle to a full and fair settlement with the Palestinians. On April 14, however, Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington and, breaking with longstanding U.S. policy, acquiesced in the permanent annexation by Israel of large swathes of the West Bank. In other words, as of this week, the Bush administration has endorsed the seizure of the land of one party by another in an international dispute.

Events in Palestine have already had an important impact on Iraqi attitudes to the United States, and likely will continue to do so. It is not that most Iraqis are fanatically pro-Palestinian: In fact, many resent Palestinian leaders for taking money and support from Saddam. But Iraqis, like most Arabs and Muslims, feel anger and sorrow over the Palestinian catastrophe and regard their struggle as legitimate. Even cautious, mainstream Iraqi leaders such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani have expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause and condemned Israel for attacks on Palestinians.

On the morning of March 22, Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at Muslims emerging from a radical mosque in the densely populated al-Sabra quarter of the occupied territory of Gaza. They killed eight people, including the half-blind paraplegic, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (clerical leader of Hamas), and wounded 24 others. Yassin had blessed the suicide bombings that had taken so many civilian lives in Israel, but he was not on the operational side of Hamas. He planned no such attacks, although Israeli Interior Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi implied that he did, saying, "The days of the terrorist chiefs and commanders who will not spend all their time trying to survive and still prepare attacks are numbered." Actually, Yassin had spoken of the possibility of a century-long truce with Israel, and exercised a restraining influence on young hotheads in the movement. Nor had any court tried and found Yassin guilty. He was simply assassinated, a contravention of the Geneva Convention of 1949 governing military occupations. Despite U.S. denials, many Arabs and Muslims concluded that Yassin's assassination was green-lighted in Washington, and Hamas itself briefly threatened revenge on the United States -- a virtually unprecedented departure from its position that its war is only with Israel.

Israel's right-wing Likud government, headed by Sharon, came into office in 2001 determined to undo the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, which required Israel to give back all or most of the Palestinian land it occupied in 1967. Israel had militarily occupied the West Bank and Gaza ever since, and had systematically colonized large parts of them, expanding Israeli territory at the Palestinians' expense.

Sharon wanted to permanently annex about half of the West Bank, and appears to have decided that this action might be made palatable to the U.S. and some European states if he, at the same time, withdrew from Gaza altogether. Gaza is a vast slum. It is the most densely populated place in the world, burdened by a poverty-stricken, angry population that has suffered through nearly 40 years of military occupation. The 7,500 Israeli settlers in Gaza, who are difficult and expensive to protect, would be removed to the West Bank, which has much better real estate values, and Israel would be seen to be voluntarily relinquishing Palestinian territory. In the process, it would permanently acquire much of the real prize, the West Bank, and make it almost impossible for a Palestinian state to emerge -- despite continued empty promises on that score from Sharon and Bush. (In fact, Sharon has made his intentions quite clear: He told the Israeli press that his plan would "bring their [Palestinians'] dreams to an end.")

At their joint news conference on April 14, Bush blessed Sharon's plot. Of the "existing major Israeli population centers," (i.e. settlements) on the West Bank, Bush said it is "unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." Bush also hailed Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and move its settlers to the West Bank as "historic."

Translated, what Bush really said was that there would be no return to the 1967 borders and that Israel's policy of annexing occupied territory and planting large settlements on it -- actions forbidden by the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949, which forbid permanently acquiring territory by war -- had now received the stamp of approval from Washington. Moreover, Sharon was authorized to take further steps unilaterally, without negotiating with the Palestinians.

Combined with the American military assault on Fallujah, Bush's embrace of Sharon's position succeeded in making America, in Arab eyes, virtually indistinguishable from Israel. The Egyptian daily al-Jumhuriyyah spoke for many Arabs when it observed in the wake of the Bush-Sharon accord, "the victims being killed daily in Palestine and Iraq are due to the continuation of the occupation ... Violence and extremism have increased as a natural response to the brutality of the occupation."

Before Bush endorsed Sharon's plan, much of the Arab press and popular opinion had stopped short of such an equation. Many, even those opposed to the U.S. invasion and critical of the occupation, were prepared to acknowledge that not all of those fighting the Americans were noble freedom fighters. Now, the rhetoric and sentiment are swinging the other way.

Sharon's plan for West Bank annexation and withdrawal from Gaza had held one danger. Hamas, strong in Gaza, might take advantage of an Israeli withdrawal to use the territory as a base for even more suicide bombings. Sharon was determined to wipe out the Hamas leadership so as to cripple its organizational capacity and render it unable or fearful to benefit from a unilateral Israeli pull-back. Thus he launched the rocket attack on Sheikh Yassin on March 22, which was a piece of political theater. A half-blind man in a wheelchair could simply have been arrested (in fact, Yassin served time in an Israeli prison in the 1990s). The point was to inspire fear among his successors.

Hamas is a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist party, deriving from the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood. Sheikh Yassin's extremist writings are widely read among fundamentalists, including those in Iraq. His murder provoked outrage among both Sunni and Shiite Iraqis. Some of them determined to take revenge on the closest ally of the Israelis, the Americans who were occupying them.

The fuse ran from Gaza to Iraq, and ignited in Fallujah. Sunni Arab fundamentalists and Arab nationalists are particularly strong in al-Anbar Province, the site of the notorious centers of opposition to American rule such as Fallujah, Ramadi, and Habbaniyah. Fallujah in particular has many Islamists close in their thinking to Hamas. The group that killed the four American civilian security guards in Sunni Arab Fallujah on March 31 identified itself as "Phalanges of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin," calling the grisly killings a "gift to the Palestinian people."

American military forces immediately began closing on the city, seeking revenge. Although the link was virtually unreported in the Western press, the ghost of the man in the wheelchair had cast a long shadow over the American occupation of Iraq -- one that would grow longer.

Then, on April 2, the radical young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced in his Friday prayer sermon in the southern Shiite city of Kufa that he should be considered the "striking arm" of Hamas "because the fate of Iraq and Palestine is the same." On April 3, the Coalition Provisional Authority issued 28 arrest warrants for associates of al-Sadr, and took 13 of them into custody, including Sheikh Mustafa Yaqubi, his representative in Najaf. The pretext for the arrests was a year-old murder, and the warrants were themselves several months old. It is probable that the decision to act was taken in the light of al-Sadr's April 2 sermon, by Bush administration officials who feared his movement posed a threat to Israel.

The U.S. responded with massive military force to the twin Sunni and Shiite uprisings, assaulting Sadrist positions in East Baghdad and besieging and shelling Fallujah. The situation in Fallujah in particular became dire, and as noted above has exacerbated anti-U.S. sentiment across Iraq and the Arab world.

Neoconservatives, many of them ardent defenders of Israel with strong ties to the Likud, were among the chief intellectual architects of the war on Iraq. The American neoconservative linkage between Iraq and the Likud was first revealed in a position paper, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," written by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and other neoconservatives for incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. They advocated an Iraq war, the destruction of the Oslo peace process, the refusal ever to return territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and using a conquered Iraq as a means of pacifying the Lebanese Hezbollah.

At the time, such positions were regarded as wildly radical: Today they have become U.S. policy.

Perle used his position of influence as chair of the Defense Policy Board, which advised the Pentagon, to promote an Iraq war, as did Feith, who became undersecretary of defense for planning in Bush's Department of Defense, and Wurmser, a Middle East advisor on the staff of Vice President Cheney.

The irony is that even though they got what they thought they wanted, the entire enterprise might have just boomeranged on them. Instead of neutralizing Iraq as a player in the Middle East conflict, they almost certainly have provided new allies to the Palestinians and to the Lebanese Shiites, in the form of popular Sunni and Shiite religious and political movements that can now freely mobilize since Baath repression is gone.

The U.S. siege of Fallujah aimed at trapping the guerrillas that had used the town as their base. Some of them were ex-Baath military, others Iraqi or Arab nationalists, and yet others were radical Muslim fundamentalists little different in their views from Hamas. Many were well armed, having raided Baath weapons depots, and well trained, having served in the Iraqi army.

In order to get at them, the Marines surrounded the city, gradually invaded it, and ordered strikes on positions from which they took fire. It is the nature of urban warfare that civilians fall victim to it, for while they can flee a field of battle, here the battle comes to their own homes and street corners. It is too soon to estimate reliably the death toll of Iraqis during the assault on Fallujah, but reports of 600 deaths are common. It is controversial how many of those are women and children as opposed to combatants (some say as many as 200). It seems likely that most of the dead were combatants, since they were the ones the Marines were firing at. That U.S. firepower was so blunt an instrument that it killed dozens of innocents is, however, plausible, as is the countercharge that the insurgents' wild firing was responsible for much civilian loss of life.

The impression gained by many Iraqis and the Arab media was that the U.S. showed a disregard for innocent life in besieging and attacking the entire city, and that perhaps there was even an element of deliberate vindictiveness in the operations against ordinary Fallujans. Even Adnan Pachachi, the prominent Iraqi nationalist and former foreign minister of the Qasim government in the early 1960s, said, "It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah, and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal." Pachachi serves on the U.S.-appointed Interim Governing Council (IGC) and was one of the few Sunni leaders with some credibility to have associated himself with the Americans. That he was so enraged by Fallujah is a bad sign. His implication that the U.S. was engaged in collective punishment, assaulting an entire city to avenge the desecration of four U.S. security contractors, was especially damaging, since collective punishment is forbidden by the Geneva Conventions.

The Iraqi minister of human rights, Abdul Basit Turki, who had been appointed by the IGC to great fanfare as a symbol of the new Iraq, resigned his post in disgust. Another IGC member suspended his membership on the council in protest at U.S. attacks on Shiite cities in the south, in pursuit of militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, who had mounted insurrections in several cities.

One British commander who spoke anonymously to the press complained bitterly of the tactics of U.S. forces in places like Fallujah, saying that they were using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. He also forthrightly accused the U.S. military of viewing Iraqis as an inferior form of human being or Untermenschen, and having little regard for innocent Iraqi life.

The siege of Fallujah was represented on the Arab satellite television channels, such as al Jazeera, as a massacre of innocent civilians, a charge that was apparently widely believed but which caricatures the Marines, who took heavy fire from experienced fighters and lost many killed and wounded. This toll was hardly inflicted by innocent women and children. However, many of the latter were killed by a U.S. military strategy that disregarded risks to civilian life in its pursuit of the fighters.

In any case, the siege of Fallujah inspired a mood of anger and solidarity in much of the Arab world. Thousands of Palestinians marched in the Gaza Strip in support of the people of Fallujah on April 11. At the Jabaliya refugee camp, demonstrators raised placards with pictures of Sheik Ahmed Yassin of Hamas, Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and even Saddam Hussein.

In Baghdad, the relatively upscale Shiite quarter of Kazimiyah had a longstanding rivalry with nearby Sunni Azamiyah, which lay across the Tigris on the other side of a bridge. The youth of the two quarters often engaged in turf wars and taunting. Now they joined forces, gathering food, water and medicine in front of the Sunni Umm al-Qura mosque. They mounted a joint Sunni-Shiite relief convoy, accompanied by protesters who carried posters of assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Muqtada al-Sadr.

On Friday, April 9, Sunni cleric Sheikh Harith Suleiman al-Dhari called in his Friday prayers sermon at the Mother of All Battles Mosque in Baghdad for national unity and a three-day general strike to protest the siege of Fallujah, a call that thousands of Shiites answered. Pan-Islamism and Sunni-Shiite unity in the face of encroaching Western powers has been a political dream since the 19th century, but has usually proven futile. The U.S. assault on Fallujah managed to give it some reality.

The siege of Fallujah made the American military look to many Iraqis and Arabs as though it were imitating the tactics of the Israeli military, which had long launched punitive raids into Gaza (and before that Beirut) and targeted places like civilian apartment buildings and crowded streets with bombs and missiles from jets and helicopter gunships. The Yemeni teachers union, just the sort of educated leaders of thought the U.S. should be trying to woo, on April 12 issued a scathing condemnation of what they called the "carnage" in Fallujah and in the Gaza Strip.

The upshot: In many minds, there are now two major occupations of Arab land by outside powers, the West Bank and Iraq. This perception is a very dangerous development for Americans seeking legitimacy in Iraq and the Muslim world.

The massive U.S. assault on Fallujah created a situation in which political forces not on very good terms with one another put aside their differences to unite against the U.S. Palestinians and Iraqis tend to differ about whether the U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein from power was a good thing. Almost all Iraqis agree that it was. But both concur that Israeli occupation and punitive measures toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are wrong.

Likewise, radical Sunnis and radical Shiites do not for the most part like each other very much. But they were capable of joining together to send tens of relief trucks in a convoy to aid Fallujah. This forging of new bonds among forces that reject both the now-formalized process of annexation by Israel of Palestinian territory and the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq signals that the U.S. is losing the battle for hearts and minds. Once such attitudes harden, they are extremely difficult to overturn. Fallujah may be one of those historical turning points, where the stronger power wins militarily but loses all legitimacy in the eyes of those for whom it is supposedly fighting.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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