Dispatches : MIDDLE EAST

Article excerpt


In Israel and the occupied territories, the attacks in the United States have produced an eerie sense of deja vu. In Israel, hospitals are on high alert and people are stocking up on gas masks, a precaution fueled by news stories--some of them Israeli-inspired--that Iraq too is on America's hit list and so Israeli cities may again be targeted by Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles.

In the 1991 Gulf War, Palestinians were placed under a six-week curfew. Today their 700 towns, villages and refugee camps are blockaded by earth ramparts and army checkpoints that are manned, occasionally, by tanks. Back then, they danced on the roofs when missiles rained on Tel Aviv. Now they are trying to live down media images of a handful of their people celebrating the carnage in America.

What links the two wars and two peoples is pessimism. After a year of the latest, bloodiest and most desperate conflict, all expect that things can only be worse this time around. And both nations have already tasted the future: Palestinians via a ferocious Israeli assault on their communities; Israelis via unusually tough arm-twisting by their chief ally, the United States. In the week after two airliners plowed into the World Trade Center, the Israeli army killed twenty-eight Palestinians (most of them civilians) and invaded Jenin and Jericho, two West Bank cities under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli leader Ariel Sharon apparently assumed the world would buy his comparison that Yasir Arafat is "our bin Laden" and grant license to bring him to heel. It wasn't granted. Under European and US pressure--and criticism from Sharon's increasingly dissident Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres--the offensive was curbed, aided by Palestinian moves that for once wrested the initiative out of Israel's hands.

Convinced that Israel would use the attacks on America to destroy his authority--personal and institutional--Arafat urged a campaign replacing the stereotype of gleeful Palestinians with images of Palestinians praying, lighting candles and donating blood. He also ordered a cease-fire "on all fronts," expressing his people's "readiness to be part of the international alliance for ending terrorism against unarmed innocent civilians." Palestinians, mostly, endorsed the call. Washington nodded to Israel to reciprocate. With extreme reluctance, Sharon did so. On September 18 he authorized his army to cease all "initiated actions" (incursions and assassinations) in the Palestinian areas and withdraw tanks from Jericho and Jenin. …