Arab News Editorial 30 March 2002

US Secretary of State Colin Powell put his finger on the right spot when he identified, last night, the factor that was driving the Middle East toward the abyss. It was the terrorists who did not want the peace process to succeed, he said.

And then he told us who the terrorists were, and who were not: Palestinians were, and Israelis were not. Civilians were dying in both Israel and Palestine. Those who were killed while celebrating the start of Passover in Netanya on Wednesday were civilians. So were the teenage girl near Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah who ran out of her house hearing the sound of shots and the young man who was going to mosque to offer his dawn prayer; both of them were shot. But Powell’s message, which he himself called “powerful”, was that when Israeli civilians are killed, it is terrorism and when Palestinian civilians are, it is not. When Israel kills, the American administration can “understand” it as the exercise of Israel’s right to react to the death of its people. Since Palestinians do not have that right, the administration can “recognize” it as terrorism.

And the responsibility to end the cycle of violence is that of Yasser Arafat. While Powell asked him to end it, the chairman was sitting in his office, with a gun on his table, expecting Israeli soldiers to come in any moment to “isolate” him, possibly, with a bullet. Even in the best of times, a leader with all the trappings of a modern state cannot prevent a highly motivated individual, driven by frustration or deeply felt grievance, from acting in an unpredictable way. President Bush or Secretary Powell have not been able to end all acts of violence in the United States, precisely because those who have grievances don’t get permission from either of them before taking a gun or a bomb to vent their anger. That does not mean that either the president or the secretary had not “done enough”. Then how can anyone expect a leader who, even before Israeli tanks entered his compound, had been a prisoner in his headquarters to exercise control over an embittered people?

Arafat, even though the symbol of Palestinian resistance, has never been in control of all Palestinian factions. There have always been those who opposed him and rejected the peace process. The only way to render such forces ineffective and wean people away from the path of violence was to show them that Arafat’s way would win them freedom, security and dignity. That was why, while the peace process, even with all its imperfection and humiliations, was on track, there was virtually no violence against Israeli civilians. But supporting him was the one thing that the Bush administration was determined not to do. It missed no opportunity to humiliate him. Bush would not meet him; nor would Vice President Cheney. A man systematically treated as a spittoon cannot act as a Roman emperor.

Arafat does not have the magic wand that would end violence with a wave. He can do that if the United States, the “honest broker” would show his people that it considers Palestinian lives as precious as Israeli lives and begin to identify terrorists by their actions, not by their ethnicity. And it would help if Washington, before announcing total faith in Sharon’s “restraint”, would check with the women and children massacred in Sabra and Shatilla. They will testify to Sharon’s restraint and humanity — as will the inmates of Auschwitz testify to Hitler’s.


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