Hardened hearts and a decade lost

Neil Macdonald on the lost decade for the Middle East

I entered this decade standing on the roof of a building overlooking Manger Square, little town of Bethlehem.

In the minds of Christians, that is where the count-up to 2000 began. So it just naturally became one of those international foci that attracted pilgrims and cameras and reporters.

It was a weird and optimistic time. Much of the world was fretting about portents. Scholars called it "millennial anxiety."

Evangelical pilgrims from the West were arriving in the Holy Land in droves, determined to be at the centre of their universe for what they thought could be the End of Days.

In Jerusalem's Old City, messianics spent New Year's Eve keeping watch for Christ's return.

He was supposed to walk down the hill from Bethany, on the far side of the Mount of Olives, across from Jerusalem's Golden Gate.

Palestinian workers prepare Manger Square in front of the Church of Nativity for the millenium celebrations in December 1999. Behind them is a large poster of the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and then U.S. president Bill Clinton. (Reuters)

There were cameras set up to catch his arrival and some of the people involved in that effort were discussing whether the lenses would be technically able to capture his halo. I am not making this up.

When doves flew

There was also, dare we forget, the more secular worry of a Y2K bug, which threatened to shut down all the world's computers at the stroke of midnight.

Anyway, none of that happened. But the Palestinians had a ball.

In those days, they still had a functioning government and a fair measure of autonomy. In fact, they controlled Bethlehem and grabbed most of the attention.

Yasser Arafat, co-holder of a Nobel Peace Prize, had been spending months making statesmanlike speeches and endlessly inspecting his own honour guard, preparing to assume the presidency-for-life of the new state of Palestine.

His rivals, the Islamist leaders of Hamas, were either in exile or sitting in Palestinian jail cells. (Luxuriously furnished cells, supervised by extremely polite jailers, but jail cells nonetheless.)

Bill Clinton was still the American president, and Arafat was always over visiting at the White House.

The peace process — perhaps the most overworked term of the era — was still alive and apparently robust.

All that had to happen was for the Palestinians and the Israelis to agree on just a few more details, and "two states living side by side in peace and security" would be the happy reality.

In retrospect, though, the real portent that night was when Palestinian officials symbolically released a flock of doves from Manger Square.

Instead of soaring serenely toward heaven, the birds panicked in the TV lights, flapped around madly for a minute or so, then winged it out into the desert where they were hunted down and eaten the next day by Bedouins.

The Middle East, once again, had asserted its own reality.


Within nine months, Bethlehem had descended, along with the rest of the region, into the violence and loathing of the second intefadeh, which I had the dubious privilege of witnessing at close range.

I'm not going to get into who started it, but it was a hopeless mismatch, as told by the respective body counts — about 5,000 Palestinians and about 1,000 Israelis.

Still, the first intefadeh, back in the 1980s, had worked pretty well for Arafat and the second one might have, too, had it not been for a gang of miscreants that he'd never met, but who played a far more deadly game than the PLO had ever contemplated.

When that first jet hit the first tower in New York in September 2001, I was descending the old Salt Road to the Jordan Valley through the Judean desert.

An Afghan detainee is carried on a stretcher before being interrogated by military officials at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

My left-leaning Israeli cameraman, Azur Mizrachi, grasped the import of what had just happened faster than I did.

"It's over," he said. "Goddamn them. It's all over."

Sept. 11

Too right. What Azur understood was that in one stroke al-Qaeda had put every Arab cause, regardless of its merits, on the side of the devil.

The 9/11 bombers and their masters in Afghanistan had just provided a huge boost to hard-right Western militarism, the sort advocated by Benjamin Netanyahu, then an Israeli opposition figure, and by the likes of Dick Cheney, who had just settled into the White House as George W. Bush's vice-president.

The peace process, which Israelis like Azur had been counting on to open borders and make them full citizens of the region, had just croaked. His dream of eating hummus in Damascus someday evaporated in the desert air before his eyes.

The Palestinians, not being quite as swift on the uptake as Azur, reacted as foolishly as they possibly could. They actually celebrated the attacks on Manhattan in the streets of their cities.

Arafat did everything he could to suppress video footage of those parades, no doubt understanding what was coming — a global reordering of power and priorities.

Gone in an instant was all the mushy Western accommodation, borne of guilt over the betrayal of Arabs after the two world wars.

Al-Qaeda had drawn a bright new line so to speak and, as George W. Bush said that night, you were either on one side of it or the other.

Walls went up

Netanyahu, today the Israeli prime minister, understood that immediately. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, he was touring the offices of foreign TV networks in Jerusalem, talking about the state of "Arafatistan."

Now, he said, the rest of the world understands what Israelis had been putting up with for years.

The second intefadeh, whatever its merits, was condemned to irrelevance that night, too.

It had really just been a public game of chicken until then, anyway: Palestinians with their stones and popguns squaring off flamboyantly against the heavy armour and advanced weaponry of a world-class army, mostly for the benefit of cameras.

With American sympathy now gone, Israel crushed the rebellion.

By the time I left the region in 2003, Arafat was holed up in his Ramallah headquarters, his institutions smoking piles of cinders, the towns and cities of his people surrounded by perimeters of steel.

Israeli border police detain a Palestinian protester in Jerusalem's Old City in December 2009. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

What's more, Israel had begun building its long, heavily guarded barrier — on the Palestinian side of the UN's green line — effectively annexing big chunks of the West Bank in the process.

Clash of civilizations

Within a few years, Hamas, the Islamists Arafat had rather tentatively imprisoned, were not just free.

They were actually running Gaza, having chased away or slaughtered the PLO authorities, who retreated to the West Bank and a shrivelled "government" with neither money nor sovereignty.

The U.S., on the false pretext of closing down Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, invaded that country, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis in the process and triggering a civil war that may yet reignite the region.

But what took place as the decade wore on went much further. Despite American denials that a clash of civilizations was under way, that is exactly what happened.

Bush declared his "War on Terror" and proceeded to define terror as the administration pleased.

In this country, thousands of resident Muslims were locked up, some indefinitely, often on the flimsiest of evidence.

Abroad, the U.S. government set up a network of secret prisons, which they stocked with Muslim militants and radicals, whom they either tortured or allowed to be tortured.

U.S. agents, operating with impunity in other countries, grabbed people, almost always Muslims, off the streets of foreign cities and spirited them away on CIA aircraft.

Western governments began profiling Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, using their spy agencies to penetrate the mosques and cultural groups.

A deep chasm

All of this, of course, stoked the natural paranoia that has infected Arab societies.

Deep hatred for the West had never been well hidden anyway. Witness the celebrations following 9/11.

But even before that, during my time in the Middle East, I can recall standing outside mosques from Jerusalem and Ramallah to Amman and Cairo, listening to prominent imams urge violent retribution against the evils of Western infidels and crusaders.

I sat once at an affluent, secular table in Amman and listened to my university-educated dinner companions describe 9/11 as an American government plot to demonize the Arabs. After all, wasn't I aware that the Jews employed in the World Trade Centre stayed home that day?

Western journalism, where Arab nations were concerned, began to decay. Too many reporters, especially Americans, bought into the jingoism ascendant back home.

The better news organizations started backing away when their journalists in the Middle East were being kidnapped and tortured, or worse.

And the great Western public simply lost interest in hearing about the plight of Palestinians; or other Arabs, most of whom live without much dignity, usually under the boots of pitiless regimes.

Now, exactly 10 years after I stood overlooking Manger Square on the eve of the Millennium, the East-West chasm is deep and probably permanent, at least for my lifetime.

Iran is almost certainly working on the second Islamic nuclear bomb, and the country that holds the first one, Pakistan, is weak, and riven. In fact, it poses probably the single greatest strategic threat to the rest of the world.

After 9/11, it was fashionable to say "everything changed" that day. I would argue everything retrenched.

Every nasty bias, every tribal instinct, every suspicion "us" had ever harboured against "them" became not just manifest, but somehow legitimized.

And that cuts both ways.

Maybe it was inevitable and the 9/11 attackers were just catalysts. I don't know. But I do know this: Our hearts and minds are much harder than they were on New Year's Eve, 1999.