A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
September 8, 2005 Volume 36 / Number 1


Terrorism Closeup

by Andrew Flescher
Andy Flescher, Religious Studies, and Alan Gibson, Political Science, received a fellowship from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies to take part in a 10-day course on terrorism and the threat it poses. The program was held May 28–June 8, in Tel Aviv.

The fellowship was designed to (1) give select professors from American universities a crash course on the on-the-ground reality of the threat of terrorism and (2) explore theoretical and practical responses to this threat. Israel was understood to be a case study of a country defending itself against terrorism. The fellowship was not primarily to discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, although this issue came up every day (indeed, we visited settlements just as the country was preparing for disengagement).

The program gave us apparently unparalleled access to sites and personnel that even high-ranking army and state officials within Israel often don’t have. For example, we met with captured suicide bombers and other accused terrorists held in maximum security Gilboa Prison; the Jordanian and American ambassadors to Israel; the Deputy Head of the Turkish Embassy; the third in command at Mossad; the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Chairman of the Subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services, Yuval Shteinitz (who briefs Sharon daily); and renowned professors at the Institute for Counterterrorism, including the famous political theorist Natan Sharanksy, who is a proponent for the Bush Administration's view that democracy represents a wave that the world will catch, in time.

We went to Gaza and the West Bank, visited Jewish settlements, and spent time on navy ships. At the Israeli-Lebanese border we viewed Hizbollah positions and saw the remaining intact Scud missile that Saddam Hussein launched against Israel in the 1991 Gulf War.

After the fellowship portion of my trip ended, I wanted to see this region from a Palestinian perspective. I traveled on my own to Palestinian territories, and thus, in the end, was able to spend significant time with both Palestinians and Israelis. I departed the Middle East feeling that Israel had not exaggerated its security issue, but that the Palestinians themselves were not the proper focus for the Israelis' efforts of self-defense.

I was convinced that terrorism is state-sponsored, in almost every case. For this claim, there is abundant evidence. Each suicide attack is expensive and meticulously planned. The evidence presented suggested that Israel's security problem primarily resides with Arab Muslims living outside the territories who are committed, heart, soul, and body, to a homogenous Middle East. Israel's moral problem is closer to home: Israel must go out of its way to start restoring human rights and self-determination to Palestinians.

I was escorted to Ramallah by a recent college graduate from Wesleyan, a religious American Jew named Joseph Berman, who also works for the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, an organization that I'd contacted through a connection of my colleague, Loren Lybarger. I spent the morning with Joseph his roommates, one of whom, an Israeli named "Laser," is a member of the Israeli group Anarchists Against the Wall. Another of Joseph's roommates, Lisa, who was not present, is a member of the International Solidarity Movement, the same group to which the late Rachel Corrie belonged (Rachel was the controversial activist who was killed in Rafah by a bulldozer after she refused to move aside). A giant poster of Rachel hung on the wall of their living room. Joseph and Laser articulated that they were appalled by Israel's decision to build the security fence. Joseph gave me a tour of Ramallah that Friday morning, after which I stayed there on my own until Sunday. All four of the roommates were particularly distraught the day I arrived, because the previous night the army had gone into the small town of Bilin in response to two suicide bombers' attempts to launch an attack in Jerusalem, one of which, coincidentally, would have blown up a block from where our group was meeting with representatives from Sharon's coalition just four days earlier in the prime minister's office.

Later that day, I was told, Laser was headed to Bilin for an organized protest. (I have since learned via e-mail from Joseph that Laser got arrested and detained for a couple of days by the Israeli army). In response to the incursion, a soldier lost an eye from a thrown rock, and everybody was preparing for an escalation in violence the next day. Although I was invited, I chose not to join Laser. I was admittedly on guard. I had been to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv a couple of days earlier, and they advised me in the strongest possible terms to go nowhere near Ramallah, let alone the heart of the chaos. I decided that it was probably prudent to stay in Ramallah, although part of me regrets not going to the protest.

Even though it was Friday, Ramallah was a bustling city, in both the Christian and (predominantly) Muslim quarters. As soon as the megaphone broadcasting the Friday sermon came to a close, the market along the main street opened and swung to full crowd capacity. Joseph and I first walked to Arafat's old compound, Mukata, at which Arafat is now buried. We then made our way down to the Christian quarter and subsequently roamed through the main Muslim neighborhoods. Joseph himself was still discovering Ramallah, as he'd lived there at this point for only two weeks. As we walked around the city, I was struck by two contradictory experiences: (1) the affability of the Palestinians themselves, who obviously rarely see Americans or Europeans these days in the territories, which contrasted with (2) the alarming frequency with which I saw signs indicating "swastika" equals "Jewish star" alongside propaganda posters recruiting suicide bombers. There was no way for me to tell how representative these images were of Palestinians living in Ramallah, just as there is no way to verify the media's impression that all Palestinians, rather than just a mere few, were cheering on 9/11 as news came of the planes hitting our buildings.

When I directly asked Palestinians if they endorsed the swastika equation, some answered that they did. This alarmed me. Joseph, who had just left me, told me that he himself was still getting a sense of the prudence in approaching Palestinians but decided that despite the risk he would choose to do so, as the only way he believed peace would come would be through the ad hoc exposure time after time between "others." Still, this decision did not stop Joseph from frequently editing my commentary, as I asked him question after question about his views of Israel, etc. Joseph was clearly afraid we would be overheard and misinterpreted--thus putting us in danger. Incidentally, I think Joseph to be tremendously courageous. Not only is he risking his wellbeing by living in Ramallah, but from what he told me he is somewhat of a black sheep among his Jewish American cohort, who, besides his immediate family, has a very hard time understanding what on earth he is doing living in Ramallah.

The most positive experiences I had in Ramallah were at night, where people seemed more relaxed and thus more apt to be engaging in the most normal kinds of behavior. In an eatery/bar in the Christian section of town, I chatted with those in the joint, as anybody would do in a foreign land. I encountered other professors from various countries at the hotel where I was staying, most of whom had nuanced views about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I stood to benefit the next day from the various connections they had made to other Palestinians in the city. I must say that in this short 48-hour span, I came to feel tremendous sympathy for the Palestinian plight.

To be sure, Palestinians have not only had to deal with a diaspora themselves over the last 57 years, but, by their own testimony, have also been treated like third-class citizens by their own Arab brethren, particularly the Jordanians and the Egyptians, who have done next to nothing to ameliorate their plight. I got the distinct feeling that Palestinians feel used by everyone: by Clinton, who they see as wanting to make a reputation for himself in securing peace in the region; by Arab leaders who have used their plight as a means to remaining a "hands-on" thorn in the "Zionist" cause to secure a Jewish state; by their own corrupt leadership of late (i.e., Arafat); and, of course, by the Israelis, who I am now convinced that, while they do have real security issues, harass Palestinians well beyond the needs governed by their self-protection.

Especially after going to Gaza, which I did with my group a week earlier in an armored bus, I am convinced that if there is ever to be a lasting, fair peace in this region, the entire world must kick in to aid and assist Palestinians. This means not only that Israel must allow a number of Palestinians back into Israel (without necessarily doing this under the rubric of "right of return") as well as give money to Palestine to rebuild, but that the United States and the rest of the world, in particular the 22 other Arab states, must do so as well. Gaza is an overcrowded hell. It is so densely populated that if nothing is actively done to mitigate the crowding, the problem will get worse after disengagement, not better. Palestinians, I discovered, are aware of all of this. They are waiting for the world to put some pressure on Israel and the other Arab states.

Palestinians, I concluded, do want peace for the most part--and do so the more they tend not to be religious. I am more convinced than ever that the term "radical Islam" refers to a real and dangerous ideology that prohibits the existence of any people in this part of the world who are not Muslim.

Palestinians, in my view, represent a great hope among the Arab lands in the Middle East because Palestinians are relatively secular. Israelis, even though they are clearly overzealous with respect to their handling of the "security issue," are correct to claim, as they so often do, that Palestinians are being armed by powers on the outside, not because those powers are sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, but because any acknowledgement of a Jewish state at the end of the day is an unacceptable solution. These Arabs are as intractable and dangerous as the Jewish settlers who claim they are unwilling to leave their homes under any circumstances. Thus, in spite of the fact that I still think most Jewish Israelis and Palestinians want, along with the rest of the world, peace in their hearts, there are certainly many others who do not feel the same way.

I have some very compelling photos, in particular of the security fence from the Palestinian side, on which lie wonderfully artistic expressions, such as one depicting a young girl reaching out for a balloon headed over the wall. I am both tentative and hopeful - and will be watching the news very carefully for developments after the settlers are fully evacuated.