A new norm in international relations

Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has sent an army of more than 3000 soldiers and 200 tanks and bulldozers into the Palestinian towns of Nablus, Bethlehem, and Ramallah.  Israeli forces cordoned off these areas, cut the electricity, and blocked all food supply to their inhabitants.

The aim is to get rid of Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian nation.  Arafat, now trapped in his headquarters in Ramallah, is being blamed for the wave of suicide bombers that have killed scores of Israeli civilians in the past few days.  These human bombs walk into the most crowded public places and detonate themselves at will. Their actions, heroic in the eyes of the Palestinians but terroristic in the eyes of the Israelis, call to mind the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Israel wants the world to view its action as an integral part of the defensive war against global terrorism.  It invokes the same Bush doctrine that rationalizes the American invasion of Afghanistan as an act of self-defense.  According to this doctrine (“Either you are with us or you are against us”), any nation that does not take action against terrorists seeking refuge in their territory renders itself open to attack.

It does not matter that Arafat has condemned every act of atrocity committed by these suicide bombers and has called for a cessation of hostilities at every turn.  It does not matter that the extremist group Hamas, which has opposed Arafat’s leadership from the start, has claimed responsibility for these attacks. Israel claims that Arafat himself is a terrorist, and is the sponsor of the suicide missions.

The Israelis have cast Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in the role of the Taliban.  They must be destroyed before Israel can co-exist peacefully with Palestine. This is the same line that the Bush government used in Afghanistan, and it is also the same one it is using as it prepares to invade Iraq.  Stripped of rhetoric, what the line comes down to is this:  “We will choose your leaders for you, and then we will leave you in peace.”  This is the story of Afghanistan.

It is a new disturbing norm in the relations of nations.  And it is shocking that the rest of the world seems to accept it without question.  For until recently, it was taken for granted that nations have the inviolable right to self-determination – the right to choose their own social system and their own leaders.  No nation, no matter how big or powerful, could intervene in the internal affairs of another.  It is the only way that the peoples of this planet, subscribing to different ideologies and responding to the imperatives of varying cultures, can live in peace with one another.

We may not like the Taliban – the way they oppress their women and other religions – and the Afghan people may not have freely chosen their leadership, but it was the government of the Afghan nation.  We may not like Saddam Hussein – the way he treats Kuwait as a province of Iraq or develops bio-chemical weapons – but he is the president of an independent country.  No nation, not even the mighty United States, should have the right to meddle in their internal affairs. This is a guarantee they enjoy once they become members of the community of nations.

Finally bowing to a recent UN Security Council resolution, President Bush has called on Israel to withdraw its forces out of Palestinian areas.  But Bush cannot expect Ariel Sharon to listen to him while he himself is busy courting Arab countries to support a US campaign to take out Saddam Hussein.  Sharon has vowed to get Arafat’s head and to dismantle the “infrastructure of terrorism”, and only then will he withdraw his forces.  By the standards of the American retaliatory record after Sept. 11, Sharon’s behavior no longer sounds outrageous. This is a most dangerous development in international relations.

The war against terrorism has become a blanket justification for preemptive strikes against perceived enemies, while the US has become the sole judge of who is terrorist and who is not.  More and more, the United Nations has shown an inability to enforce its resolutions, and no other country or group of countries is strong enough to stop America or any nation that plays the bully.  America has killed multilateralism, yet the world has become too complex for a lone superpower to govern.

It is obvious from the conflicting signals it has sent on the IsraelPalestine crisis that America has no strategic vision for peace in the Middle East.  It watched the peace process break down and failed to take any initiative to bring Arafat and Sharon back to the negotiating table.  But more important, its perspective on the Arab world became so colored by its paranoia about Iraq and the Al Qaida that it did not see the tension perilously building up in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian quest for the lands seized by the Israelis in the 1967 war has continued in the last 35 years.  Palestinians have fought with all the weapons at their disposal – stones, slingshots, guns, and now suicide bombers.  It has been a one-sided war.  “Our only weapons against Sharon are our blood and our bodies,” Newsweek quotes the relative of an 18-year-old female student who exploded herself in a market in Jerusalem.  It is surely simplistic and unjust to describe this development in the Palestinian struggle by the limited vocabulary of counter-terrorism.


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