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Middle East: Rumors Mix War On Terror With Israeli-Arab Conflict

  • Charles Recknagel

As U.S. strikes in Afghanistan continue, so do rumors in the Arab and Muslim world alleging the war on terror is targeting Islam, and not terrorists. One such rumor calls the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington a provocation by Israeli intelligence to spark Western military action against Muslim countries.

Prague, 17 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The rumor that Israel was behind the 11 September attacks in the United States has been circulating around the Mideast and Iran almost since the day of the tragedy.

The story goes like this: The operations were too complex for any group other than a government to coordinate. And besides, the rumor alleges -- with no basis in fact -- some 4,000 Jews working in New York's World Trade Center were forewarned not to go to work the day the Twin Towers were destroyed.

The sight of scores of funerals for Jewish victims of the 11 September attacks appears to have done little to slow the rumors' course. In past weeks, it has repeatedly surfaced on the Internet, in talk shows on some Mideast regional channels, and as a subject of speculation in some of the region's newspapers.

As recently as last week, Iran's hard-line "Resalat" newspaper published an article saying the 11 September attacks were so complicated they had to have been carried out by Israeli intelligence agents. At least one top Iranian cleric and official already has come close to endorsing the charges. Last month, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who chairs the powerful Expediency Council, told prayer-goers in Tehran that "some people believe that Israel is behind these [11 September] attacks. Maybe they are right."

In Kuwait, some speakers on television have ridiculed the rumors while others have embellished them. In Pakistan, letters to newspapers have repeatedly returned to the subject.

No Western officials have yet sought to put the story to rest, though several Jewish community leaders have said it is time to try to do so. Reuters quotes David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, as saying yesterday that the U.S. government has not wanted to comment so far, perhaps because it "doesn't want to confer legitimacy on these canards by even acknowledging their existence."

But he added, "sadly, this story has taken on a life of its own. [At] this point it would be very helpful for the [U.S.] administration and other countries not only to condemn this canard but to call it by its real name, which is raw, unadulterated anti-Semitism."

Analysts say that the story has circulated because it ties into an ongoing debate within the Arab and Muslim world. That is whether the U.S. response to the 11 September events are an attack on terrorists, as the West says, or an attack on Muslim Afghanistan and Islam, as many Muslim militant groups say.

That debate has been fueled by videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden, the man Washington accuses of masterminding the 11 September attacks, which call the U.S.-led war on terror a struggle between Muslims and infidels. He has also tried to directly link the war on terror to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by saying his group, Al-Qaida, is determined to liberate Palestine.

Arab journalists say it is difficult to estimate how many people in the Mideast believe the rumors that Israel was behind the attacks, although they say it appears to be a small minority.

Maher Othman, a journalist and regional expert at the London-based Arabic newspaper "Al-Hayat," says that the rumor has the most appeal to those with the least access, or the least interest, in obtaining credible information.

"Illiterate people who have no access to credible information tend to blame, of course, many evils on Israel. [And] they refuse to believe that it was Muslims or Arabs who carried out the attacks in the United States."

But Othman says that if most people do not believe the rumor, many in the Mideast are nevertheless suspicious of any Western military action that targets fellow Muslims. He says this is due to the history of war between Arab states and Israel and the fact the U.S. is Israel's chief ally.

"The majority of Arab and Muslim opinion might, on the other hand, find that the ferocity of the present campaign is harmful to a Muslim nation. The mood in the Middle East is always in a state where, when such cataclysmic events take place, Israel will be blamed for having sown the seeds."

Tensions in the Middle East over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are running high since the peace process broke down more than a year ago. An ongoing Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation has cost the lives of 678 Palestinians and 184 Israelis.

In a measure of how much the tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian issue may complicate U.S.-led efforts to build an international coalition against terrorism, both the top U.S. and British leaders have repeatedly stated their desire in recent days to get the peace process started again.

This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in London to push for reviving the process and to shore up Arab and other Islamic support for the antiterror campaign.

Blair said after the meeting that "a viable Palestinian state, as part of a negotiated and agreed settlement, which guarantees the peace and security for Israel, is the objective."

U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this month endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state, so long as Israel's right to peace and security are preserved. But he said the year of violence between Palestinians and Israelis must end before peace talks can resume.

Prospects for getting the peace talks restarted remain uncertain, with the Israeli government and the Palestinians still widely divided on where any renewed talks should lead.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday he would be willing to negotiate the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state, but only under strict limitations. Sharon has previously spoken of a Palestinian state as having no more territory than the Palestinians already partially or fully control. That is some 40 percent of the West Bank and two-thirds of the Gaza Strip. He also said Jerusalem must remain united under Israel's control.

That position is unacceptable to the Palestinians, who seek control of most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and part of Jerusalem as the capital of any future state. The peace talks have been on hold since September last year, when the negotiations broke down amid renewed violence.

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