Neil Macdonald: How bin Laden killed the Palestinian dream

In one terrifying stroke, Osama Bin Laden betrayed his own people and played directly into the hands of right-wingers in Israel and across the world in America, writes CBC senior Washington correspondent Neil Macdonald.

I had just turned off the old Salt Road, the Dead Sea sparkling poisonously in the distance, when my cellphone trilled. It was late afternoon, Middle East time, on Sept. 11, 2001.

We were in the middle of the second Palestinian intifada and, for some reason that I cannot recall today, we were on our way to one of the Israeli settlements implanted in the Jordan Valley, that deep rift that slices through the Levant.

We were passing Jericho, complaining to one another about how we could no longer buy a nice glass of fresh orange juice in that most ancient little city.

On the line was my wife and Radio-Canada colleague, Joyce Napier, sitting in the CBC's Jerusalem bureau high up in the Judean Hills behind us.

She didn't know quite what to make of what she was seeing on TV. A plane had slammed into one of the two World Trade Center towers.

Early reports speculated that it may have been an accident. We kept driving. A few minutes later, another call, from Toronto this time. A second plane had hit. This was an act of war. Get the hell back to the office, right now.

My Israeli cameraman, AzurMizrachi, recognized instantly what this moment meant for him, and everyone else living in Israel and the tracts of rock and sand and scrub that Israel has occupied since 1967 and 1973.

He spat a nasty curse at the 9/11 bombers and looked at me with fear and resignation. "It's over," he said. I knew exactly what he meant.

Azur and many of his fellow Israelis, especially those whose families have always lived somewhere in the Middle East, had been counting on the so-called peace process to end their isolation.

Azur voted left of centre, was repelled by the thought of living in the Occupied Territories or in any seized Arab home and wanted a peace deal. His family came from Syria and he cherished the dream of being able to drive to Damascus for a plate of hummus.

It was over

But he was almost certainly right. It was over that day. In one terrifying stroke, Osama Bin Laden had just betrayed his own people and played directly into the hands of right-wingers in Israel and across the world in America.

On that day, all Arab violence, no matter what its purpose or cause, provoked or not, became "terrorism." Osama bin Laden saw to that.

A Palestinian boy passes a mural of Osama bin Laden in the al-Bureq refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in December 2002. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told Osama bin Laden on Sunday to stop claiming he was fighting for the Palestinians and dismissed Israeli charges that al Qaeda is active in the Palestinian territories. (Reinhard Krause/Reuters)

That afternoon, or perhaps the next, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's once and future prime minister, made the rounds in Jerusalem's main press building, seeking to tie then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to bin Laden.

"Arafatistan," Netanyahu called the state Arafat had for years been trying to create. Other Israeli rightists had a similar message: 9/11 was tragic, but now the West would finally understand what Israelis live with every day.

Arafat and his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership recognized the danger instantly; though many Palestinians, stupidly, did not. In Ramallah, Nablus and Gaza, spontaneous celebrations erupted. Thousands took to the streets, cheering the attack on Israel's great ally and sponsor.

Arafat tried to suppress the euphoria, ordering tape seized and bullying news organizations that did manage to get film back to Jerusalem. The Associated Press, shamefully, caved to his threats, and refused to release its footage.

I did a story on that, to the anger of my fellow foreign correspondents: "Journalism in the service of terrorism," one Israeli spokesman called the news suppression.

Osama's legacy

The one place Arafat could not reach, however, was Arab East Jerusalem, which is ruled by Israel. A few people celebrated and handed out candies, and those pictures were enough to highlight an already stark line.

America's leadership was already talking about being "with us or with the terrorists," and most Americans who saw those pictures drew a quick conclusion about which side the Palestinians had chosen.

Belatedly, Arafat sent out Hanan Ashrawi, the only woman (and Christian) in his cabinet, to offer deep public condolences to America. The Palestinian Authority then tried to organize a candlelight vigil.

Too late. Even if no Palestinian had celebrated the 9/11 bombings, I suspect, it still would have been too late for that kind of gesture.

Foolishly, the Palestinians had already moved from throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers to shooting at them, and then to suicide bombs. Their logic, as their leaders put it to reporters, was if Israel was going to kill Palestinian civilians, then they would kill Israeli civilians.

After 9/11, that tactic became even more self-defeating, to put it mildly.

Ariel Sharon, the newly elected Israeli prime minister, was basically given a free hand by Washington after 9/11 to deal with the Palestinian intifada as he saw fit. Which he did, employing his powerful army to crush it.

Eventually the uprising sputtered and Arafat ended his days as a prisoner in his own headquarters. By the time he died, his cities were sealed-off islands, surrounded and controlled by Israel.

I have no idea whether this second intifada, as it came to be known, ever had much chance of succeeding. The Palestinians have now turned, increasingly, to peaceful protest and disobedience, trying to borrow a page from Gandhi.

They are also in the midst of petitioning the UN for their state. Israel, with America and Canada's backing, opposes that and is holding out for a deal on its terms.

And Osama Bin Laden is dead, having tarred his fellow Arabs — none more so than the Palestinians — probably for decades to come.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew passes a poster depicting Osama bin Laden and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that reads: "The Twins: kick Arafat out, fight the terror," in central Jerusalem on Oct. 22, 2001. (Reuters)