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US Attacks Force Israel, Palestinian Policy Reexamination - 2001-09-22

The September 11 attacks on the United States are having a major impact on how the Israelis and Palestinians view their conflict in the Middle East. Both sides are reexamining their policies and trying to determine how America's new war on terrorism will affect the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.

It is unusually quiet in Bethlehem, the accepted site of Jesus' birth.

Throughout much of the past year, the sounds of war, including missile, tank and gun fire, have become a part of everyday life in Bethlehem and elsewhere as Palestinian militants fought Israeli soldiers.

An uneasy calm has now settled over much of the region because, after pressure from the United States and other countries, both sides agreed to observe a cease-fire following the attacks on New York and Washington.

An end to the fighting is seen as critical to American efforts to recruit Arab and Islamic countries into a worldwide coalition against terrorism.

Manuel Hassassian, a political science professor at Bethlehem University, says the Bush administration's new interest in the region and intervention in the conflict are necessary for progress to be made. "It is so unfortunate that thousands of people had to be sacrificed in the United States as a wakeup call to the Bush administration to intervene immediately and to try, more or less, to circumvent the ongoing, unabated violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called Palestinian President Yasser Arafat "Israel's Osama bin Laden," referring to the prime suspect in the terror attacks on America.

Journalist Leslie Susser, the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine, says America's war on terrorism has left the Palestinians in a difficult position.

"The impact has been major. I think it has totally changed the rules of the game," he said. "The Palestinians realize that they could be branded as terrorists on the same level as bin Laden. That would give Israel a license to go in, in the same way as the Americans might go in against bin Laden, and that would have disastrous consequences for the Palestinians. So the choice for Yasser Arafat has been stark.

"Either continue terror and risk major Israeli retaliation, which would be uncensored in this case. Or declare a cease-fire, come down on the side of the angels, and hope that through American support he will be able to achieve politically what he has been unable to achieve through Palestinian bullets.

Mr. Susser says there is also considerable pressure on Israel to ease the conflict with the Palestinians so it will not threaten Arab support for the anti-terror coalition.

"The Israelis have been told quite bluntly by the Americans that they don't want them to interfere in the formation of this grand coalition that the Americans are trying to build. The Americans very much want this coalition to have Muslim members and Arab members so that it will not be perceived as a war of the Christian world against the Muslim world," he said.

"The Arabs have made it very clear that they don't want Israel in this coalition if they are to be members as well. So the Israelis need to, in a way, have a low profile as far as membership of the coalition is concerned. They don't want to be seen to be the party preventing that coalition from being formed."

Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Khatib says while Mr. Arafat was quick to condemn the attacks on America, televised pictures of Palestinians celebrating the events caused intense anger in the United States.

Mr. Khatib says if President Bush wants to be successful in his campaign against terrorism, he must end support for Israeli policies that are viewed as hurting the Palestinians and that have created, he says, an anti-American sentiment among people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Because if he doesn't do that there is a big chance that his campaign will backfire on him. Because in this case his campaign will only increase the hatred of the populations of the Arab world and the Islamic world against the American government and the American policies in the Middle East and consequently will increase also the violence and probably terrorism," he said.

"That is why George Bush has to be consistent and has to contribute to a fair solution to the Palestinian tragedy and at the same time continue to make efforts toward punishing terrorism and terrorists wherever they are.

It has been nearly a year since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began. More than 800 people, mostly Palestinians, have been killed. While many are predicting the conflict will re-ignite, one Palestinian analyst says calm in the Middle East would mark America's first victory in the war against terrorism.