Palestine Beyond the War on Terror: Mistakes, Challenges and Prospects

Palestine Beyond the War on Terror: Mistakes, Challenges and Prospects

Palestinian leadership’s adaptation to a world where the claims to US hegemony are decentralised is an urgent and overdue project, argues Ramzy Baroud.

Linking Palestinians to terrorism is arguably one of Israel’s greatest hasbara successes. Long before the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC, various Palestinian groups were labeled as ‘terrorists’ by several US administrations and all of the corporate mainstream media. In 1987, for example, the Ronald Reagan Administration labeled the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – recognized internationally as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people – as ‘terrorist’. It has done so under immense pressure from the pro-Israel lobby and despite the fact that Washington, shortly after, facilitated some kind of diplomatic contact with the Palestinian leadership in Tunisia.

In November 1988, Washington refused to grant PLO President Yasser Arafat a visa to deliver a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, in violation of its commitment to the international community. At the time, American pressure on the Palestinians was not entirely motivated by the Israel lobby alone or the mobilization of the pro-Israel Christian fundamentalists throughout the US. The Palestinians were seen as allies of the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact and various national liberation struggles around the world. Thus, demonizing and isolating the Palestinian leadership served the American agenda, as well as that of Israel.

The designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization by the Bill Clinton Administration in 1997, served a similar purpose, although with regional, as opposed to global, political priorities in mind. The US was deeply involved in Middle Eastern politics. It had invested numerous financial and diplomatic resources to ensure the Middle East remains an American geopolitical space. Every political player within that space had, therefore, to be qualified as friend or foe, a moderate or an extremist, a pro-American or a terrorist.

By then, the Palestinian leadership, now operating under the title of the Palestinian Authority – as opposed to the practically-defunct PLO – played along. When Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Gaza in 1998, the PA put on a show to demonstrate that Palestinians have changed in every way possible to meet American expectations. Even the Palestinian Constitution was rewritten. A vote on the new language took place when the Clintons were in the audience in the Gaza-headquartered Palestine National Council (PNC).

For the Americans, behaving either jointly with Israel or at the behest of the Israeli government, Palestinian politics, language, media coverage, even school curricula had to be reorganized, revamped or rewritten in ways that would not offend Israeli sensibilities. Any Palestinian who dared disagree was labeled, shunned and, at times, even imprisoned or assassinated. For the most part, the PA, which largely survived on American handouts, complied with American diktats.

Unlike Israel, Palestinians had no powerful lobbies in Congress and few friends in mainstream corporate media. Negative images and the constant linking of Palestinians to violence were – and largely remain – omnipresent in US TV networks and newspapers. Therefore, as the US continued to pressure Palestinians, fund Israel with billions of dollars in mostly military hardware while conditioning its meager support for Palestinians on their willingness to comply with Israeli demands, US media lauded the government’s efforts and demanded more.

The tragic events of September 11 took place almost exactly one year following the tragic events of the Second Palestinian Intifada. While the American interpretation of the Intifada was marred by the expected and traditional US bias towards Israel, 9/11 ended any possible conversation that could potentially include Palestinians. Almost immediately, Israel’s hasbara experts launched a comprehensive media campaign, purposely conflating the Palestinian struggle for freedom and the so-called ‘Islamic terror’. Palestinians were no longer allowed access to US media. Those who were allowed partial access merely served the role of apologists, as opposed to the intellectual demanding freedom for his people. Moreover, Israel had succeeded in presenting itself as a ‘partner’ in the US so-called ‘war on terror’. By doing so, it was given a much greater space in shaping the American narrative, not only regarding Palestine alone, but the entirety of the Arab and Muslim world as well.

In April 2008, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reflected on all of this at a speech at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. “We are benefiting from one thing,” the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv, quoted Netanyahu as saying, “and that is the attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, and the American struggle in Iraq swung American public opinion in our favor.”

Netanyahu was correct, as he had personally ensured the complete demonization of the Palestinians in the eyes of the American public, along with the deliberate confusion between Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In truth, the American agenda in Palestine, which resulted in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and the Oslo interim agreement of 1995, has adopted the Israeli language regarding the Palestinian need to end ‘incitement’, ‘violence’ and ‘terror’. The latter agreement, in particular, has called on organizing the Palestinian police force around a mission that would allow it to “act systematically against all expressions of violence and terror.”

When the 2000 uprising temporarily liberated Palestinians from the confines of ‘security coordination’ with Israel – as many of the PA police directly took part in the popular rebellion – the US felt the need to take decisive action. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, Washington’s military envoy in Palestine, was dispatched in 2005 to completely overhaul Palestinian security, so that Palestinian police and troops may never challenge the Israeli occupation again. Thousands of Palestinians were, more or less, forced to early retirements while new recruits were brought in to join an entirely different structure.

“Dayton focused on the ‘gendarmerie style training’ of West Bank-based security personnel,” Emad Moussa wrote in the “New Arab”. Four different intelligence agencies were involved in the processing of applications, lead amongst them being the American CIA, the Israeli Shin Bet, along with the Jordanian intelligence and the PA. Applicants, according to Moussa, were mostly checked for any “terrorist links”, which, per Israeli definitions, include any act of resistance, be it violent or otherwise against the Israeli occupation. Since then, the PA security has duly been used to crack down on Palestinian protests, plot with the Israeli army, apprehend Palestinian resisters and ensure the American-Israeli agenda in Palestine is well served.

The harm inflicted on Palestinians, as a result of the succumbing of the Palestinan leadership to the American agenda, has exceeded the geographic boundaries of Palestine into the Middle East region as a whole. Mohammed Dahlan, a former ally of current PA President Mahmoud Abbas, is one such character who has been linked to various conspiracies and crises in the region, especially since the start of the revolts, upheavals and civil wars of recent years. Following the split with Abbas in 2011, Dahlan has re-established himself as the middle man between Israel and various Arab countries, eventually leading to the wave of normalization of ties between Tel Aviv and various Arab capitals. Though Dahlan is often derided by his PA detractors for cooperating with Israeli and American intelligence agencies, the irony is that cooperating with Israel and the US has been the modus operandi of the PA since its establishment in 1994.

Unlike the PLO, which at least attempted to play the role of the unifier of all Palestinians everywhere, the PA remained limited in its interests and representations.

The American ‘war on terror’ wrought unprecedented devastation to the Middle East, with Palestinians paying a particularly heavy price wherever they resided. Even the small Palestinian community in Iraq was targeted as soon as the American invasion of that country commenced in March 2003. Hundreds were killed, quite often murdered in cold blood, according to a Human Rights Watch report in 2006. HRW accused the US-installed Iraqi government of “arbitrary detention, torture, killing, and ‘disappearance’ of Palestinians”. Due to the mass killings and subsequent civil war resulting from the US invasion, the plight of the Palestinians went largely unreported. As a result, the Palestinians of Iraq were largely expelled or fled. After amassing for years at desert refugee camps at the Iraq-Jordan and Iraq-Syria borders respectively, the refugees were eventually evacuated, landing mostly in South America and other far-away regions.

Even in Iraq, the US was still motivated by its pro-Israel agenda. The likes of Abu Abbas, a Palestinian militant leader, accused of masterminding the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, “Achille Lauro”, in 1985, was found after an extensive search and apprehended by US Special Forces in Baghdad. A senior US Administration official used that opportunity to “send a strong message to the terrorists,” CNN reported that “you can run but you cannot hide”. Abu Abbas was eventually found dead in his cell in 2004, allegedly as a result of ‘natural causes’.

Back in the US, the collaboration between the American and Israeli governments had reached unprecedented levels. Not only did Israel continue to be the recipient of the most sophisticated US military aid and technology, US-funded Israeli technology circled its way back and was sold to the US government at exorbitant prices. Israeli ‘technology’ was first introduced to US-run Iraqi prisons in the form of the ‘Palestinian Chair’ and other torture techniques, but eventually became a prominent feature in the American security apparatus at home.

The refashioning of the American police, in recent years, to fit some kind of a military model is a subject that requires a better understanding than the one currently offered by mainstream US media. Certainly, US racism and police violence are intrinsically linked and date back many years, but the militarization of the US police and its use of deadly violence against suspected petty criminals, or even non-criminals, is a relatively new phenomenon that has been largely imported from Israel.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2016, Rachel Stroumsa argued that the ‘Palestinian Chair’ is “but one of many examples of ties and seepages between the security practices of Israel and America,” adding that “the CIA explicitly justified its use of torture in depositions to the Senate Intelligence Committee by citing High Court of Justice rulings.”

The political, military and intelligence marriage between the US and Israel in Iraq quickly spread to include the US global ‘war on terror’, where Israeli weapon manufacturers cater to every American need, playing on the country’s growing sense of insecurity, offering products that range from airport security, the building of watchtowers, the erection of walls and fences, to spying and surveillance technology.

Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company, made a fortune from building surveillance towers and sensors, in addition to many other products, across the US-Mexico border. The company, like other Israeli companies, won one bid after another, because its products are ‘combat-proven’ or ‘field-proven’, because these technologies have been used against, or tested on real people in real situations; the ‘people’ here, of course, being Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians.

Former US President Barack Obama’s partial withdrawal from Iraq and general retreat from the Middle East in 2012, a strategy that was branded as part of the Administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, was meant to usher in a new political age. But the repercussions of the US ‘war on terror’ continue to shadow US foreign policy, not only in the Middle East region but globally as well. For nearly a decade, US foreign policy became noncommittal, operating largely without specific ‘doctrines’, with which successive US administrations are linked.

The chaos that Washington left in the wake of its wars in the Middle East will continue to haunt the US reputation and credibility for decades to come. Writing in the Cairo Review in 2016, Hisham Melhem commented on Obama’s legacy:

“What makes Obama’s failure more salient, as he struggles in his final year in office to shape his legacy in the Middle East, is the catastrophe in Syria. The civil war has led to the disintegration and radicalization of the country, the destruction of Syrian society, and contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. All of this was brought on in no small part by Obama’s indecisiveness, tepid actions and about-turns.”

In all fairness, Obama’s obvious failures notwithstanding, US foreign policy has been in complete shambles long before Obama’s ascendency to the White House, and remained long after his departure. Former US President Donald Trump, for example, tried desperately to rebrand his country’s relation with the Middle East with his announcement of the now largely defunct ‘Deal of the Century’, which merely divided the Arabs in order for the US and Israel to isolate Iran. True to form, the current Biden administration continues to follow the same predictable path, supporting Arab-Israeli normalization, paying lip service to peace and occasionally utilizing and recycling old ‘war on terror’ terminology.

However, the US desire to control regional and global politics has proven insufficient in the face of circumstances that fall entirely out of US control; nor did Obama succeed in executing a meaningful shift of his country’s foreign policy epicenter to the Asia Pacific. Biden’s disastrous and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 capped two decades of a pitiful US ‘war on terror’, that was never truly defined from its violent beginning to its equally violent end.

What the US ignored, at its own peril, was the fact that Washington was never, even at the height of its self-tailored wars, the only political actor that determined regional or international outcomes. Russia is now emerging as a major player in the Middle East, where it carries greater political weight and influence in some countries, including Syria, Libya and Iran. China, on the other hand, which is now expanding beyond its traditional geopolitical confines of the Pacific and the South China Sea regions, is ironically Iraq’s biggest trading partner. The irony is complete when one considers that the US invaded Iraq in 2003 so that it may control and direct the future of the region, economically, politically and strategically. Less than 20 years later, it finds itself increasingly isolated, as its largest global competitors are staking claims over a region that was, till recently, almost entirely floating in the US sphere of influence.

However, as the Middle East actors are realigning politically to accommodate the major political shifts underway, the Palestinian leadership and the various political groups are either stuck, because of their own folly and mistakes, or are forced to operate within limited political margins. Take the Palestinian Authority, for example. The very creation, funding and political validation of the PA are situated within an American strategic framework. When the Trump administration withheld US funds in August 2018, the entire Palestinian economy was on the verge of collapse. Within that period, in February 2019, the PA’s dominant political party, Fatah, agreed to participate in a Russian-sponsored conference, which attempted to bridge the gap between Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Fatah’s participation was clearly opportunistic and was meant to send a message to Washington that the Palestinian leadership is willing to explore the possibility of finding new benefactors if Washington continued to withhold funds. No sooner had the US resumed its funding of the PA in April 2021, than Fatah rejected another invitation from Russia to return to the inner Palestinian dialogue.

Hamas, on the other hand, is desperate for allies. Due to circumstances that, by far, exceed Hamas’ ability at political maneuverings and due, in part, to Hamas’ own miscalculations, the so-called ‘Arab Springs’ have represented the greatest challenge to Hamas’ regional politics. Whether Hamas’ decision to abandon the ‘axis of resistance’, as a result of the Syrian civil war, was driven by moral considerations or by political opportunism, it matters little now, for the political group found itself more isolated than ever before. With the gradual return of Hamas to its former allies in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and, possibly, Syria as well, the Islamic group is finding its way back to its former position and alliances in the region. By reorienting itself once more, Hamas is no longer operating without a safety net, as was the case in the previous decade.

However, the consequences and benefits from Hamas’ return to the Iran-led regional bloc will all depend on Iran’s ability to withstand pressures from the US-led Israeli-Arab configuration. Additionally, Russia’s future relationship with the region, its willingness to sustain its presence as a major geopolitical actor in the future is likely to serve as a buffer between an American return to the Middle East and Israel’s military adventurism, whether in Iran, Syria or Lebanon.

Though Palestinians have the least influence on the region’s political outcome – due, partly, to the fact that they are an occupied nation, which has no control over its resources and strategic location – they still have opportunities that can be exploited in order for them to maintain their resistance against the Israeli occupation. Unfortunately, the political split in Palestine, which is dividing Palestinian groups between two camps that stand in direct opposition to one another, is further squandering Palestinian political energies.

Chances are Palestinian disunity will continue as long as the Middle East region is itself split between regional camps and global competition. This reality can be understood as part and parcel of any geopolitical conflict since time immemorial. However, it is most unfortunate in the context of the Palestinians, who are fighting against common enemies—Israeli military occupation and apartheid on the one hand, and US political hegemony on the other. For now, Palestinian politics will remain tied to the politics of the region. A glimmer of hope comes from the fact that the US is no longer the only dominant power in the Middle East, creating unprecedented space for the Palestinians to maneuver politically beyond their traditional confines, which could be of great benefit to the Palestinians. Whether they are able to use this opportunity or not, is to be determined.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is “Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak out”. Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is

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