Shock Waves Echo for Arabs and Israelis


Here in the Middle East, crucible of much of the world's terrorism, the horror gripping the United States on Tuesday reverberated loudly among Israelis and Palestinians.

Leaders throughout the region expressed shock and condemned the bizarre series of suicide hijackings and mass murders. Some Israelis ventured that perhaps now, world opinion will mobilize behind their own battle with terrorism. And some Palestinians celebrated the attacks, so angry are they at the United States for supporting Israel in its fight against the Palestinians.

Many Israelis suspected that anti-Israel sentiment may ultimately be found behind the American disaster.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called an emergency meeting of his security Cabinet, expressed condolences to the U.S. government and immediately offered assistance, including the dispatch of Israel's crack rescue-and-recovery teams, which were used after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and after numerous earthquakes. He said in a national address that the attacks were aimed at destroying "freedom and our common values."

Israel evacuated its diplomatic missions throughout the United States, put its air force on alert and closed its airspace and borders. No flight will be allowed to land at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv unless there is an Israeli security guard on board.

"I hope the world now understands that its No. 1 enemy is Islamic terror," Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said as he canceled a scheduled trip to Washington.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, in Gaza City, quickly condemned the series of attacks.

"We are completely shocked," Arafat said after he watched the news unfold on television, his aides at his side. "We completely condemn this very dangerous attack. It's an unbelievable disaster. It is touching our hearts. . . . God help them. God help them."

Similarly, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the government of Jordan expressed their shock and condolences.

On Palestinian and Arab streets, however, reaction was mixed.

Izzat Hassan Ali, who owns the Jihad grocery store in Cairo, said he felt nothing but pleasure at the thought of Americans dying.

"As they did to other people [it] is happening to them now. They hit innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it backfired on them," he said, in an apparent reference to the Persian Gulf War and the U.S. strike on Afghanistan after the 1998 embassy bombings.

Iraqi television played a patriotic song that begins "Down With America!" as it showed the World Trade Center's towers falling.

But in Beirut, 53-year-old Elias Khoury said: "I think it's terrible, and there's no point in killing civilians like this. This is pure madness, which can't help anybody's cause."

In the West Bank city of Nablus, in Gaza City and in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, groups of Palestinians took to the streets and handed out sweets, a token of celebration. Similar scenes were reported from Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

In Nablus and Gaza, some people fired guns, also in celebration, and chanted, "Bin Laden, bomb Tel Aviv next!"--a reference to widespread suspicions that the terror network of exiled Saudi militant Osama bin Laden may have been involved in Tuesday's strikes. A small celebration in the West Bank city of Ramallah started but was quickly broken up by Palestinian police.

Except in Nablus, the celebrators were not numerous. Other Palestinians expressed sorrow and disbelief.

An early anonymous telephone call to a Gulf television station claimed responsibility on behalf of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But a senior official with the group, Qais Abdel Rahim, denied the claim and condemned the attacks.

And a spokesman for the militant Islamic movement Hamas, Abdulaziz Rantisi, said in Gaza that his organization was not involved.

"We direct our resistance against the Zionist enemy, and not outside Palestine," Rantisi said. The devastating attacks "are the fruit of the American foreign policy, which has created enemies [for the United States] all over the world."

In fact, most experts here agreed that no Palestinian faction has the wherewithal to carry out such a coordinated and well-executed series of attacks. Many of the recent suicide bombings by the extremist Palestinian Islamic groups--Islamic Jihad and Hamas--have been botched.

However, anger in the Arab and Islamic world at the United States--and its good friend Israel--is at a fever pitch these days because of the almost year-old Palestinian intifada. Palestinians blame Washington for supporting Israel and giving it lethal weapons that have been used to attack Palestinian towns.

The Israeli government declared today a day of mourning and will fly flags at half-staff.

Israeli television gave vast coverage to the events in New York, Washington and beyond. Commentators issued measured criticism of what they termed a lax regard for the world's threats on the part of the United States, which has allowed sanctions against Iraq to crumble and permitted Russia to sell nuclear technology to Iran.

"This watershed event will be the beginning of a new era" in how the United States regards the fight against terrorism, Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovich said on a Tuesday night news talk show.

Israeli television's chief political correspondent reported a "we-told-you-so" mood in the corridors of the Israeli government--a sense that "we warned you this could happen and now you see."

Israelis said they hoped now for a more united international front to fight terrorism. Palestinians said they worried that whoever the culprit turns out to be, the Arab world will be blamed and Israel will find new justification for harsh reprisals against the Palestinians.

Retired Gen. Efi Eitam, a former commander in Israel's north, echoed a growing hope in the Israeli right wing that Tuesday's attacks will encourage American and world leaders to shun Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

"This is a declaration of war by a consortium of terrorism with an infrastructure from Sudan to Afghanistan, and this passes through Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank," he said, pointing to the Bin Laden network as the culprit.

Israel's hawks have been mounting a campaign to convince Sharon to consider expelling Arafat from Palestinian territory as a way to stop the intifada. They were quick to capitalize on Tuesday's disasters.

Leading the charge was former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Sharon's right-wing Likud Party.

"This is a turning point in history, and no one understands terror better than Israelis," he said on national television. ". . . Concerted efforts by democratic nations must be made now to uproot terror. Only force works. We must destroy the regimes that support terror: Bin Laden. [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein. Arafat."

Wilkinson reported from Jerusalem and Curtius from Gaza City. Times staff writer Michael Slackman in Cairo contributed to this report.

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