Arabs seize 'Jenin' as rallying cry

Short on details, tales of Israeli atrocities in Jenin electrified Arab viewers this week.

Bulldozers level the carnage left behind by US-supplied Apache gunships in Jenin. Constant images of women and children trapped in basements and grisly corpses flash across the television screens of a dazed and angered Arab public.

The living rooms of poor and middle class Arabs, whose young men provide Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda with many of its fresh militant recruits, are full of such pictures these days – the very images that feed the sense of despair that Western experts on conflict and terror contend helps hard-core terror organizations recruit new members.

The media barrage – through television, radio, and newspapers – is ceaseless. Though details of the fighting remain cloudy, pending formal investigation, the message to Arabs seems clear: Almost without exception – among the rich, the poor, the young, and the old in this teaming city of 26 million – people say the world, particularly Washington, has given the green light to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's army to run amok in West Bank cities, shattering lives.

An editorial this week in the "Arab News," a moderate Saudi newspaper, suggested that Jenin conjures up the "the name Srebrenica" and "all the worst hor- rors of the Bosnian war; in 1995, when 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Serbs. In the same way, the name Jenin looks set to go down in history as the place that encapsulates all the horror of the present phase of the long war for Palestinian freedom."

Stanley Bedlington, a counterterrorism expert, who received his own training in the British Army in Jenin between 1946 and 1948, says the fresh images on Arab television screens are likely already feeding the recruitment drives of Al Qaeda and other terror organizations. "These are the kind of images that these groups can point to when they are signing up new members," says Mr. Bedlington. "We know that even since Sept. 11, terror groups are gaining a stronger foothold in certain areas, and we've seen new Al Qaeda squads opening up as well."

The sense of humiliation created by these images of carnage and suffering are the real danger, other experts say.

"Most of the analysis we have to date suggests that these images foment a sense of anger and impotence, which can be used as forms of motivation by terror groups like Al Qaeda, which promote the idea of suicide bombing," says Herb Kelman, the director of a program for international conflict analysis and resolution at Harvard University. "One has to assume that what is happening now is feeding these very psychological impulses – a sense of helplessness and humiliation."

And in what many experts say is an attempt by Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network to remain centerstage, Al Jazeera yesterday broadcast snippets of Mr. bin Laden alongside his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Another portion of the tape allegedly shows one of the Sept. 11 hijackers reciting his "will."

Interviews with people in the scorching-hot streets of Cairo suggest a new anger boiling beneath the surface. If there is one archetypal image drawn from the latest round of fighting in the Middle East by the Arab masses, it is that of one of the world's most efficient militaries, the Israeli army, rampaging through the refugee camp at Jenin. Though it's not yet clear what happened when the Israeli army lost 23 fighters and leveled much of the camp, Jenin has already become symbolic of the Arab world's fears that no one really cares, Egyptian analysts say.

The 'Arab street'

In the "Arab street" Jenin is already viewed, almost across the board, as a "massacre" of several hundred people. Ahmed Sami, a Cairo University student who sports a money belt bearing a McDonald's logo, says he has no doubts about what "really happened" in Jenin. "The Israelis killed large groups of Palestinians and buried them all together," he says.

A sense of biting cynicism dominates what many Arabs say they believe happened in Jenin. "The Israeli army killed between 3,000 and 4,000 Arabs," says Mohammed Khalil, a 33-year-old accountant. "Sharon thinks this is the best way to create a 'Greater Israel' – by liquidating the Arabs." Mr. Khalil says he doubts that justice will be done or that even a full investigation will be carried out, because "this is Islamic blood that has been spilled."

Though Israeli officials insist that the Jenin refugee camp was a nest for terrorists – particularly the planners of suicide attacks – there has already been broad condemnation by the United Nations and by some European countries of what many in the international community view as "overkill" on the part of the Israeli army in its offensive across the West Bank. Early this week, the top UN human-rights body condemned Israel for "mass killings" of Palestinians and demanded it end its military offensive in the occupied territories. The Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights blasted Israel for "gross violations" of humanitarian law and affirmed the "legitimate right of Palestinian people to resist."

Most pressing for the United States, however, say anti-terror experts, is how fast the Egyptian and moderate Arab public has been to link the violence in the West Bank to Washington's support for Israel. "The anger is being directed at Israel, but also heavily at the US," says Professor Kelman.

Young Egyptian males, considered by some antiterror experts to be "cannon fodder" for terrorist organizations, say they are doubtful that a full investigation of the Jenin fighting will ever be carried out.

Ahmed Sami, a well-dressed young schoolteacher who holds a new Nokia mobile phone in one hand and a notebook in the other, blames the US government for allowing the killing to continue. "Guilty is Sharon and all the countries that support him, especially the United States," he says. He says he would not trust either the US or the UN to conduct a full investigation of what happened in Jenin, but says "maybe the Europeans" could carry it out.

Fanning the flames?

Egyptians who work in the state-run media deny that they have been "jumping the gun" in reporting "hundreds" of civilian deaths in Jenin when there is still little if any evidence to support such claims.

Youmna Samaha, a radio broadcaster and talk-show host, says she believes the reports from the Palestinian side that "over 500" were killed. "We see this as yet another massacre carried out while the world stands aside," she says. "As a human catastrophe, it is symbolic because it comes at a time when the Egyptian public thinks there is supposedly a peace process going on. That makes the killing particularly shocking."

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