Nervous Mideast awaits U.S. move
Israelis have hopes, Palestinians fears, as Bush government ponders response
By PAUL ADAMS
Thursday, September 13, 2001
TEL AVIV -- The Middle East held its breath yesterday, waiting to see what the angry U.S. giant would do after Tuesday's massacre in New York and Washington. Israelis hoped it would be at their side, an ally in scouring their enemies from the region. Arabs, particularly Palestinians, worried that U.S. wrath would end up directed at them.
"Leave the world of terrorism," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday, in remarks meant for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Mr. Arafat cancelled a planned trip to Syria, the base for several organizations, such as Hezbollah, that have been responsible for recent terror attacks in Israel.
For many Israeli Jews, it was almost as if the tragedy had occurred in their own country. Yesterday was declared a national day of mourning in Israel, with government television and radio limited to sombre fare appropriate to the occasion. News media ran appeals for emergency blood donations. Flowers were laid at the gates of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.
And like the United States, Israel tightened security. It completely shut its land borders with Egypt and Jordan and restricted international air traffic to its own national carrier, El Al. A steady procession of military helicopters patrolled up and down the Mediterranean coast.
Many Israeli politicians and journalists saw the attack on the United States as an opportunity to win a freer hand in their own conflict with the Palestinians.
"From now on, the world will be divided between those who support terror -- and there is no difference between a person who flies a plane into the World Trade Center and someone who blows himself up [in Tel Aviv] -- and those who stand against it," declared the popular Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.
"The freedom of action for those who fight terror will be, in the eyes of the Americans, almost absolute."
The Israelis have undertaken another major military operation inside the Palestinian territories in the past two days, a fact that barely made the news outside the Middle East as a result of the carnage in the United States.
Overnight on Tuesday, Israeli tanks temporarily occupied parts of the West Bank city of Jenin, which the government has repeatedly described as a hotbed of suicide bombers. Officials said seven Palestinians, including an 11-year-old girl, were killed.
Then, last night, Israeli tanks rumbled into the Palestinian-ruled city of Jericho to attack a security facility. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political analyst, accused the Israelis of taking advantage of the attacks in the United States.
"If this snowballs, we might see in the next few days things heating up in a very ugly way," he said.
Palestinian leaders appeared to be on the political defensive yesterday. Mr. Arafat's planned visit to Syria was originally intended to be a grand gesture of reconciliation within the Arab community. However, Syria is on the U.S. government's list of countries that support terrorism, and a spokesman for Mr. Arafat said only that the trip had been cancelled in light of "the circumstances."
There was also some obvious embarrassment among Palestinian leaders about the public expressions of joy that erupted on the streets of many Palestinian communities at the news of the attacks in the United States.
News photographers in the West Bank city of Nablus said that they had been held at gunpoint to stop them from taking pictures of the demonstrations. The Palestinian governor of Nablus insisted yesterday that the demonstrations had been against Israel military occupation, and nothing more.
Even the radical Islamic group Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for many suicide bombings in Israel over the past year, was searching for some way to handle the diplomatic calamity posed by what is almost certain to be a huge U.S. death toll.