Israel’s brutal and politically stupid murder of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin has stunned world opinion while threatening to further escalate the already numbing cycle of violence. With the upcoming Arab summit widely expected to have re-endorsed and further elaborated its 2002 Middle East peace initiative, the Sharon government apparently acted true to form.
An assessment of the reaction of the affected publics reveals some predictable and some surprising responses. Israelis, for example, were both supportive of the assassination while at the same time more fearful that the attacks would only create new terror in response. Israeli elite opinion was bitterly divided with members of Sharon’s own government vocally critical. Arab and Muslim opinion, despite having become somewhat numbed by the daily death toll resulting from Israeli assaults in Gaza, was never the less outraged at the brazenness of this assassination.
With the exception of the United States, world leaders were near uniform in their condemnation of the illegality of Israel’s actions. Here in the United States, the Bush Administration’s foolishly supported posture was not widely shared by most American opinion makers. They either expressed genuine concern at the killing or were shaken into stunned silence by this new evidence of Sharon’s brutality and the Bush Administration’s acquiescence to it.
A "push poll" of U.S. public opinion found, not surprisingly, that when Sheikh Yassin was equated with Osama bin Laden, the majority supported Israel’s action. That effort aside however, it is clear that both American elites and broader public opinion is in flux with Israeli actions no longer receiving universal support.
What is needed, at this point, is a coordinated Arab response that provides leadership and vision at this moment of crisis. Instead of biting on Sharon’s bait and sidelining their peace initiative, the Arab League meeting in Tunis ought to take the difficult, but politically courageous decision and press forward.
At the end of the day this is not about dealing with Sharon or rewarding the Likud Government’s cruel behavior, it is about changing the political debate in Israel and the United States and providing an alternative vision of hope and release for the much-beleaguered Palestinian people. And beleaguered they are. In addition to the daily humiliations of the occupation, the killing, the loss of land, the demolition of homes and the resultant loss of hope, there is the devastating impact all of this is having on the children. A recent study of Gazan youth found a disturbing decline in the mental health of the next generation of Palestinians. Ninety-eight percent, for example, were found to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Ninety-seven percent had attended a funeral. Eighty-three percent have witnessed shootings and 62 percent saw a relative killed or wounded. Twenty-five percent of Palestinian children, the study found, desired to become martyrs with many of them having seen their fathers beaten and humiliated by Israeli forces at least once.
The question, therefore, that should be asked is ‘What must be done to save these children?’. Will resorting to revenge actions against Israeli civilians do anything more than compound and prolong their suffering? While cries for vengeance now dominate the political discourse, Palestinians continue to be the losers in this continuing and ever increasing deadly cycle.
Political leadership requires taking a new and bold course of action like that provided by 70 courageous Palestinian leaders and intellectuals who recently issued an appeal with the slogan "Enough Criminal Assassination Operations, Enough Bloodshed, Enough Occupation". In their statement, the group condemns the criminal assassination of Sheikh Yassin but goes on to note:
"We are almost exploding from the pain and hurt of the disaster but despite this we call upon our people in the homeland, and in line with our national interest, to take the initiative from the hands of the criminal occupation gang and arise again in a wide ranging peaceful and popular intifadah with clear aims and sound speech wherein our people own the element of its initiative and the path it takes. This way we can make Sharon miss the opportunity of crowning his aggression against our people and sacred places by putting the final touches on his security plans."
Arab leaders ought to embrace such a vision and underwrite it with a reinvigorated peace initiative of their own.
The choice has become clear. Sharon’s plans are fed by violence. Only a change in direction that denies the brute his nourishment and provides hope for his victims will change the dynamic that has trapped too many innocents in death’s grip.
An Arab vision, such as the one I am hopeful Arab leaders will endorse, must include several elements:
A condemnation of Israel’s Wall expansionism and assassination policy;
A rejection of all violence as counterproductive to the search for peace;
An elaboration of Crown Prince Abdallah’s peace initiative that will provide a step-by-step path to an end of the occupation; and
A commitment to providing immediate assistance that will radically alter the daily life of Palestinians-both those living under occupation and those in refugee camps.
Such a vision cannot be simply introduced and dropped as it was in 2002. It must be the start of a campaign to build support and galvanize world opinion into a potent force against Sharon’s policies and for peace.
Failing to act now leaves the situation open to being defined by the continued oppression and next bombing, which will produce in its wake only more death and despair.