History will surely mark September 11, 2001 as a day of infinite infamy, a turning point for the United States and the civilized world. It could also mark a turning point for Palestinians and Israelis—the day the intifadah ended.
Whether that in fact is the case will depend above all on the actions of Chairman Arafat. But Israeli and American responses to efforts he has begun to make to stop the violence and terrorism can help create a new, positive dynamic in Israeli-Palestinian relations. If, as a result, a viable negotiating process replaces the bloodshed and hatred of the past year, America’s war on terrorism will benefit. And if the Palestinian leadership definitively repudiates violence and terrorism as legitimate means of pursuing its political objectives, then Israeli-Palestinian peace becomes an achievable objective again.
This potential for a silver lining in the very darkest of clouds is already evident in Yasser Arafat’s reaction to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Recognizing that the spontaneous glee shown by the Palestinian street in West Bank cities and east Jerusalem risked ending any remaining chance for international intervention to pressure Israel, Arafat took a series of steps designed to show empathy with America’s victims rather than the suicide bombers who had taken Palestinian terror tactics and raised them to a new, heinous art form. But beyond the PR effort (which included his own personal donation of blood, memorial services at Palestinian schools, and suppression of media reporting of support for the terrorists), Arafat also took a number of other unusual steps to stop Palestinian violence:
- He declared another ceasefire, but this time issued the orders publicly, in Arabic, with the injunction to his forces not to fire, even in self-defense;
- He appears to have persuaded both Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to stop their terror activities, at least for the time being;
- He made some arrests of lower-level people involved in terror activities;
- He sent his police to patrol sensitive areas and friction points;
- He made it clear to some Tanzim militias that this time he was actually serious about stopping drive-by shootings of Israelis;
- And for the first time since the outbreak of the intifadah he visited the gangland of southern Gaza and ordered the arrest of a mortar gang there.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.