THE LEVANT – By Richard Silverstein – Over the past months, ISIS, which had been fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, changed tactics and swept east from Syria and conquered vast swaths of largely-Sunni territory in western Iraq. In the process, it massacred thousands of Shiites, Kurds, Yazidis and other minorities in its path.
More recently, ISIS developed a new tactic which both riveted and horrified the world. Gruesome videos of an ISIS executioner beheading westerners kidnapped in the violence of the Syrian civil war have swept social and mainstream media. These radical Islamists are odious. They ought to be, and have been rejected by the world, including Sunni Muslims themselves.
But there has been a strange transformation in the western attitude toward the Islamist group: when it was slaughtering Arabs and sweeping across hundreds of miles of Iraqi desert, we paid little heed. Yes, there were expressions of concern and security officials debated about the failure of the U.S. strategy to prop up a dysfunctional Iraqi government whose army wilted in the face of ISIS. But there were no calls to arms. No vast mobilization of international will to address the threat.
That only resulted from what, for ISIS, was a brilliant media tactic—airing and disseminating the executions of westerners via social media. When one of our own was beheaded before our very eyes, then ISIS became something it hadn’t been while it was confining itself to killing Arabs: it became evil personified, an enemy of western civilization, a force that must be exterminated. What had been merely a menace when it practically conquered an entire country (Iraq), became Satan himself when it killed three westerners. As a result, we mounted an international campaign costing over $400-million so far to roll back ISIS.
Less than a year before, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, foreign powers were falling all over themselves to fund and arm ISIS, the Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda offshoots. The Gulf States led the charge. Saudi power-prince Bandar ibn Sultan, who was its intelligence chief at the time, provided the radical Sunni fighters with hundreds of millions, if not billions, as Yossi Melman notes:
…Myopia…afflicted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – all allies of the United States, driven by hatred for…The governments of these countries either turned a blind eye to the burgeoning Al-Qaida branches, or even encouraged charity organizations and influential sheikhs to fund or provide religious support for the anti-Shi’ite struggle by Al-Qaida.
…The Saudi architect of this policy was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the US and until a few years ago chief of Saudi intelligence and its national security adviser. Approximately one year ago, when the Saudi royal family realized that it had helped create this uncontrolled monster, Prince Bandar was forced to step down – though his deteriorating health was given as the official reason for his resignation.
At one point, Bandar even secretly visited Israel to coordinate Saudi intelligence operations in Syria, Iran and elsewhere with his Israeli intelligence counterparts.
In other words, we helped make ISIS the monster it is. But once it escaped the bonds we created and began wreaking havoc like a golem, then we forget it was us who created it.
Drone War on the Muslim World
Our drone counter-terror strategy too has elicited outrage throughout the region. In our fervor to root out Al Qaeda, we’ve killed over 3,000 Muslims in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We are universally condemned for this. It only makes our purported enemies stronger, offering them an immensely attractive recruitment tool. But what do the drone killings offer us? Only 4% of the dead are actual Al Qaeda militants. Most of the rest are civilians caught in the crossfire. What is it accomplishing?
And why is our rage for vengeance against ISIS pure and noble while the Muslim counter-reaction is bestial and uncivilized?
Let’s also not forget the millions of Iraqis and Afghanis killed during our invasions and occupations of their respective countries. Though some may claim there were important principles we were defending, it becomes clearer with each passing day that whatever those principles may’ve been, our expenditure in blood and treasure was for naught. Iraq is closer than ever to ethnic dissolution and God only knows what’s in store for Afghanistan as the Taliban becomes even stronger and challenges our allies there.
Do we believe the citizens of these countries will forgive and forget what we did there? Or that Muslims the world over will do the same?
Terror in Gaza
When Palestinian militants kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers a few months ago, Israel sent 10,000 soldiers to find them and track down the killers. This operation turned into a massive pogrom: 7 Palestinians were killed in protests, 500 were arrested, most having nothing to with the crime. Thousands of private homes were ransacked by the invading troops.
In a revenge attack, Israeli settlement youths kidnapped a 16 year-old East Jerusalem Palestinian. They beat him senseless with a tire iron, poured gasoline on his body and down his throat, and set him on fire. Though the killers were arrested and are being tried, and Israeli Jews expressed almost universal outrage, there was no mass movement to suppress the radical settler ideology that spawned this murder. Because that ideology is a powerful and mainstream political phenomenon in Israel. To do the right thing, Israel would’ve had to cut off its own right hand.
Israel’s mass violence in the West Bank spurred Hamas to launch rockets in solidarity against southern Israel. Though the aerial assault sent hundreds of thousands of Israelis into air raid shelters, the Palestinian ordnance caused only minor property damage.
Israel’s response was to “go nuclear.” Or, as they say in colloquial Hebrew, “the landlord went nuts.” It invaded Gaza, beginning a 50-day war that took 2,100 Gazan lives including 500 children. 70 Israelis died, almost all invading troops.
This slaughter was for the sake of 3 Israeli dead. I am not saying those Israeli lives were not precious. Nor justifying the kidnapping and murder. But why are 3 Israeli lives worth 2,100 Palestinian? If the world shares Israel’s outrage at the teenagers’ deaths, why not the 500 Gazan kids? If killing three is terror, why is killing 2,100 not?
Terror in Jerusalem
A few days ago, a Palestinian from Silwan drove his car onto the tracks at an East Jerusalem light rail station killing a three-month old baby and young Israeli woman. The crime, for which Hamas acknowledged responsibility, was horrible, even inexcusable…until you consider the pain of 500 mothers and father who lost their children last summer in Gaza. Inexcusable until you consider the settlers of Elad and Ateret Cohanim who have stolen the homes of hundreds of Silwan residents through subterfuge and fraud in an attempt to Judaize the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods.
Inexcusable until you consider Israeli Border Police this week assaulting the sacred precincts of the Haram al Sharif and filling its hall with the stench and explosion of tear gas canisters. In fact, the Palestinian wrote a Facebook post a few days before the attack which featured a picture of Al Aqsa in flames with the caption “Al Aqsa in danger.”
Even after you consider such provocations, many will still find the murder of a three-month old baby inexcusable. My point is to remember that terrorism doesn’t arise from a vacuum. A single terror attack always has a context. That the death of one three month old baby was preceded by the prior deaths of many other babies. And that all the babies’ suffering should be treated with the same gravity. And terror always leads to more terror.
In the past few hours, Yehuda Glick, an Israeli settler activist who advocated building the Third Temple and destroying the Muslim holy places on the Temple Mount, was severely injured in a potential assassination attempt. If Bibi Netanyahu and his settler allies want to rebuild the Holy Temple and destroy Muslim holy sites, there is a price that will be paid. This is just the start of it, I’m afraid.
For anyone arguing that such Israeli views are on the fringe, I remind you that Moshe Feiglin, a Kahanist and deputy Knesset speaker, supports destroying the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding the Temple. And the Bayit Yehudi MK candidate, Jeremy Gimpel, told a U.S. Christian evangelical church audience that the Dome of the Rock must be destroyed. One may argue that in the context of another country, such views are those of crackpots and not to be taken seriously. But in Israel, crackpots have a habit of becoming prime ministers and generals. Words are taken as deeds. And deeds kill.
Glick and Gimpel’s origins in the bowels of right-wing American Orthodoxy remind us the nerve toxin that it has injected into the Israeli body politic. Think of the American settler-terrorists who’ve played such a formative role not just in the settler movement, but in the consciousness of latter-day Israel: Jack Teitel, Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein. Naftali Bennett is a more polished version of these as leader of the Bayit Yehudi party, but the legacy he brings to Israeli politics is no less toxic.
Several hours after the assassination attempt, the Border Police, Israel’s crack thug-assassins murdered a suspect in the attack in his East Jerusalem home. They said, as they always do in these circumstances, that the suspect fired first, and Israeli forces were forced to return fire, killing him. We know what we think of this explanation. If the IDF is willing to kill its own to prevent their capture by Hamas, do you think security forces would have any hesitation liquidating terror suspects?
While speaking of Israel and Hamas, let’s recall that the original rapid growth of the Islamic movement was facilitated and encouraged by Israeli intelligence. Just as the CIA exploited the mujahedeen in the U.S. Cold War battle with the Soviet Union, so Israel took advantage of the new Islamic group in its battle against Arafat’s secularist Fatah. How quickly we forget, that in our hubris to promote our own interests, the monsters we create may, like Frankenstein, turn on their creators.
Returning to this past summer’s war, what did the world do in the midst of the carnage? Our State Department and virtually every other western government expressed shock and outrage at the Hamas rockets, but none at the massive killings by the IDF. Gaza today looks like Dresden after it was levelled by U.S. bombers during World War II. Yet does anyone actually believe those generals who ordered the slaughter during Protective Edge will face the justice Nazi generals faced at Nuremberg? Or will they face no judgment, as the British and American generals who killed tens of thousands of Germans in the Dresden fireball?
In other words, there is a massive double standard here. Western lives are worth outrage. They are worth mounting a massive military campaign to oust ISIS. Muslim lives? Not so much.
An Israeli Joan of Arc
In a related matter, an Israeli professor of education, Anat Rimon-Or, wrote a Facebook post about the hypocrisy of western attitudes toward ISIS. In it, she expressed some ideas similar to those here. She even goes farther and claims “heretically” that there is even a spark of the human in ISIS:
ISIL has been defined [by the world] as an enemy with demonic qualities representing nothing more than urge to kill and murder. Like Hamas before it, in July-August of this year [Operation Protective Edge]. It’s necessary to explode this image of the murderous demon, because it has no connection to the [Palestinian] people or organizations to which it is attached. Its sole purpose is to legitimize unjust murder [of Islamists like Hamas or ISIS]. It’s even possible that we’re speaking of a people or the organization that is very cruel. But it isn’t the cruelty that creates the demonic image but the [western] intention to exterminate. This is true regarding Jews, Hamas, or ISIL.
That is why we need to battle against image of the murderous demon. We have to find, behind it, the human utterance, which is always there (even if the organization, for its own reasons, conceals it well), and to point to it as a basis for an agreement that will stop the bloodshed.
Rimon-Or also suggests that instead of liquidating ISIS, the U.S. should pay reparations to the Iraqi people for the decade worth of suffering & mayhem we inflicted on them. She implies that without such mass violence and our invasion, there might not even be an ISIS to fight.
Controversial, perhaps. But the avalanche of hate that befell her was unprecedented even in the trash-talking political culture that is Israel. Right-wing columnist, Ben Dror Yemini, called her a “mad professor.” There were calls for her firing from Beit Berl College, where she teaches education. On TV, an interviewer was so aghast at her views that he talked over her for the entire interview, refusing to allow her to complete a coherent thought. I imagine this was the way the English viewed Joan of Arc before they burned her at the stake: as a radical, troublemaker, enemy of the State, even a terrorist.
So many Facebook users reported Rimon-Or’s post that Facebook censored and removed it. It’s preserved here (in Hebrew).
The nature of political debate is much harsher in Israel than outside. The political climate is intensely nationalistic, chauvinistic, and violent. The room for diverse views is increasingly narrow. Those even moderately outside the rightist mainstream are violently assaulted or intimidated both in social media and by police and hooligans during protests on the streets.
Israel is the canary in the coal mine. If we are not careful, our own societies will become as racist, violent and intolerant as Israel is. Just as drones, racial profiling and similar counter-terror methods got their start there and were transferred to the west, so may this murderous hatred not just for Islam, but for any person or idea deemed “other.”
Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board.
Check out Silverstein’s blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.