The impact of the US-led “war on terror” on the Palestinian people, their movement, and its leadership has been far-reaching and devastating. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks provided Israel with ideal political and diplomatic conditions to achieve long-standing goals.
The ensuing developments resulted in no fewer than ten thousand Palestinian deaths, the imprisonment or assassination of hundreds of key leaders, and the fundamental restructuring of Israeli-Palestinian relations on geostrategic, political, and institutional levels — all to Israel’s advantage.
Israel also greatly expanded its construction of Jewish-only colonies throughout the 1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), erected a seven-hundred kilometer “separation wall” both around and within the West Bank, and imposed a de facto apartheid regime across historical Palestine that incorporates the five million Palestinians of the OPT and the two million Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Our analysis of the war on terror and its impact on Palestine should not end with a tally of deaths, or an elaboration on the political dynamics that emerged from the post-9/11 era. The Palestinian question has always occupied a central place in Arab-Israeli and US–Middle East conflict dynamics. Israel also performs a key role in US attempts to assert its hegemony across the Middle East. We therefore need to examine the repercussions of these policies that have extended beyond Palestine as well.
The question of Palestine has long constituted a sticking point for the United States in establishing its regional hegemony. Despite repeated Israeli massacres, wars, aggressive settler colonialism, and active policies of ethnic cleansing and military occupation, Palestinian national claims and resistance to the Zionist project in the Palestinian homeland have never ended.
Those claims have prevented US-aligned Arab states from formalizing peace arrangements with Israel out of tokenistic solidarity with the Palestinian cause. It has kept an alternative anti-colonial political imagination alive — whether pan-Arab, socialist, or pan-Islamist — among a population of three hundred million in a region that contains 40 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and is situated on key East-West trade routes.
Palestine has thus posed a threat to the US regional order which incorporates both the “moderate Arab states” (namely, US-backed dictators) as well as Israel. The latter amounts to a dependent, pro-Western satellite colony, once established by Britain in the heart of the Levant, but inherited by the United States after the collapse of the British Empire in the postwar decades.
Since 1967, Israel has also faced a growing dilemma regarding the continued and increasing demographic presence of Palestinians within historical Palestine (both Israel and the OPT). This presence threatens to negate the very basis of the self-described “Jewish and democratic state.”
Before 9/11, the United States and its Western allies were trying to manage these dilemmas through the framework of the Oslo peace process, which had begun in September 1993. The end of the Cold War presented Washington with a unique set of historical circumstances to assert its unipolar dominance both regionally and globally.
Although its supporters marketed the peace process as a bona fide means to find a political solution to what they called the “Israel-Palestine conflict” through negotiations, the process lacked any internal mechanism to link its outcomes to international law that would have protected Palestinian rights. This subsequently transformed the peace process into an opportunity for Israel to exploit the asymmetrical power relations between the parties to its advantage.
Israel was keen to selectively redeploy from Palestinian residential concentrations in the OPT, locking these areas into “self-governing” autonomy arrangements that would be akin to the South African Bantustans under the apartheid regime. The Western states that backed the peace process acted as if it had resolved Israel’s dilemmas about the occupation and its own “Jewish and democratic” character by granting the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) jurisdiction over just 20 percent of the OPT, divided into nine different cantons. The US-led bloc also failed to condemn or sanction Israel’s aggressive expansion of settlements in the OPT after 1993.
The United States and Israel attempted to permanently entrench this dystopian arrangement at the Camp David summit in June 2000. US-Israeli proposals that were floated to the Palestinian delegation categorically rejected the principle of Palestinian independence, East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. They also demanded the incorporation of large Israeli settlement blocs into pre-1967 Israeli territory, permanently fragmenting the OPT.
When the Palestinian leadership rejected these demands, Bill Clinton and the Israeli leader Ehud Barak declared that it was not “a partner for peace” and shunned it following the collapse of the talks. This laid the basis for restoring the pariah status of the Palestinian movement during the pre-Oslo period. It also meant that Israel and its Western allies could characterize any Palestinian resistance to these plans as being “against peace.”
Palestinian resistance to the death of the peace process erupted after the provocative visit of Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound in September 2000. The ensuing protests developed into a sustained popular uprising known as the Second or Al Aqsa Intifada. Palestinians sought to free themselves from the constraints of the occupation on the one hand and those of the peace process on the other.
The spontaneous and unorganized nature of the uprising, which had been in progress for a year at the time of the 9/11 attacks, meant that it lacked key features which could have enhanced its effectiveness. These missing features included a clear command structure that could establish a broad consensus around tactics and strategy, better harnessing the enormous popular energy that was being unleashed. These weaknesses partly stemmed from the peace process itself, which had set Palestinian political parties against each another. Israel’s fragmentation of the OPT and its military policies also blocked organizing on the ground.
The Palestinian movement was thus poorly positioned to defend itself against the brutality of what was about to be unleashed after 9/11 by the United States on a global scale and by Israel on a local one. The movement’s opponents had long tarred it by linking it with international terrorism, well before anyone had heard of Al Qaeda. Its historical connection with tactics of plane hijacking and suicide bombings, combined with the regional, ethnic, and religious associations that Palestinians shared with the 9/11 attackers, left little space for nuanced arguments about the political differences between each case study.
From its inception, the US war on terror was intentionally vague in a way that allowed its promulgators to apply the “counter-terrorist” framework to any theater that represented a challenge to US hegemony. It also relied upon a crude binary logic, encapsulated in George W. Bush’s infamous remark, “you’re either with us or against us.” This made it impossible to elucidate who was or wasn’t “us,” let alone to ask whether those determined to be “against us” were actually entitled to legitimate political rights protected by international law — including the right to self-determination and the right to resist one’s oppressor.
Israel had long waged its own version of a war on terror, attempting to decimate Palestinian and Arab resistance so as to avoid answering the inconvenient political questions raised by its own racially driven and expansionist settler-colonial policies. The US adoption of an existing Israeli “security doctrine” thus represented a golden opportunity for Israel to accelerate its policies against the Palestinians.
Israel immediately seized upon the 9/11 attacks to do as much damage as possible to the Palestinian national project in terms of its leadership structure, organizations, personnel, and morale. It used the pretext of ongoing “Palestinian terror” — namely the Palestinian uprising — to ramp up the death count of the Second Intifada, in particular by targeting key grassroots leaders who were seen as its most effective organizers. Assassination by hit squads, Apache helicopters, and eventually drones became a central tool used to decimate the experienced ranks of Palestinian political organizations.
Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem recorded 272 Palestinians killed in Israeli assassinations between September 28, 2000 and January 1, 2005. Overall, B’Tselem documented 3,203 Palestinians deaths during this period. In the same time frame, 945 Israelis were killed, of whom 304 were Israeli military personnel and 209 were settlers.
Palestinian political factions felt provoked to respond to this elevated aggression and upped their tactical investment in the Intifada’s militarism. Suicide bombings — the poor man’s answer to Israel’s “smart” bombs — became one of several tactics they employed in an effort to puncture Israel’s “security” ethos. Of course, this dynamic only fed into the dehumanizing logic of the war on terror, further isolating the Palestinian movement internationally.
In the spring of 2002, after a particularly lethal Palestinian suicide attack, the Israeli military launched “Operation Defensive Shield,” whose aim was to reoccupy the West Bank Palestinian Authority (PA) areas (known as Area A) and systematically go door to door, arresting or killing as many political activists and militants as possible. Israeli forces also destroyed the entire infrastructure of the PA government and surrounded its leadership in Ramallah with a cordon of tanks.
At this point, the PA leadership was effectively cornered, both politically and military. With an Israeli gun quite literally held to their heads, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank acted as intermediaries to extract a list of institutional and financial concessions from them. These concessions — dubbed “PA reforms” — aimed to marginalize the charismatic figure of Yasir Arafat from the PA leadership structure, through the creation of a separate prime minister position.
They also targeted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)’s independent financial means, in the belief that doing so would make it impossible for the Palestinian leadership to engage in policies beyond the strict oversight of Israel and the donor community. Arafat had no choice but to accept these “reforms”: soon afterward, he fell gravely ill from a mysterious ailment and died in a Paris hospital in November 2004.
No conclusive cause has been established for Arafat’s death. A 2013 Swiss forensic report found “unexpectedly high activity” of Polonium-210, a highly radioactive substance, after his body was exhumed, lending support to allegations that he was intentionally poisoned. It seems very likely that Israel was behind the assassination, with US approval, even if this does not preclude a Palestinian hand in his death, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
The trail of destruction does not end with Arafat’s death and Israel’s crushing of the Second Intifada. The war on terror itself remained — and remains — an active framework, subject to continual redefinition in response to evolving political circumstances in Palestine and beyond.
As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States still needed “local partners” to administer the Pax Americana. To facilitate this in the Palestinian case, the United States backed the holding of PA elections, which the Bush administration naively believed would lead to an easy victory for Fatah. The latter had been the only significant Palestinian political party to support the peace process, and US officials believed it to have been “tamed” after Arafat’s death.
Fatah’s candidate for the presidency, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), did indeed win the presidential election held in 2005. But Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) dramatically triumphed in the more significant parliamentary elections held the following year, enabling it to claim the newly created prime ministerial post and the powers that it held.
The Hamas victory represented a catastrophic failure of US plans. It meant that Hamas would now be able to democratically assume a position of leadership and realign the PA and the Palestinian movement against the system that the peace process had established. The war on terror began to reemerge as a convenient discursive tool with which to subvert Palestinian democratic aspirations.
The Bush administration first attempted to instigate a civil war amongst Palestinians by arming elements of the Fatah-affiliated security services in Gaza and encouraging Fatah not to surrender its hold over PA institutions and ministries to Hamas. But Hamas had built up its own effective military force during the Second Intifada. It had warning of the attempted coup and routed it in the movement’s Gaza stronghold. On the other hand, the West Bank PA areas, which were still under direct Israeli military control, remained in the hands of Fatah control, resulting in the geographical split that is still in effect today.
Israel and the Western bloc of states went on to impose a siege of the Gaza Strip while backing four subsequent Israeli wars there — in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021 — all of which were justified by reference to the mantras of the war on terror. Those wars proved incredibly costly for the people of Gaza in terms of death, injury, and losses to property and the means of self-subsistence.
Through these maneuverings, Israel and its backers effectively contained Palestinian political aspirations for national liberation because of the “split” nature of the movement. The war on terror thus helped divide Palestinians to Israel’s advantage, while stifling any international pressure to end the occupation or even return to negotiations.
Western states and Israel itself transformed their mode of engagement from one at least nominally based on a “conflict resolution” paradigm to one based on “conflict management.” Israeli militarism would target any new threats in Gaza or the West Bank, while the US-led bloc of donor states ensured that no Palestinians were dying of starvation. This is essentially where the movement stands today, twenty years after 9/11.
The application of the war on terror in Palestine had unintended regional and international implications as well. Historically, Arab dictatorships had cynically employed the Palestinian cause as a kind of pressure valve to deflect domestic pressure away from their own autocratic practices.
With the Palestinian arena effectively divided and contained, the Arab dictators lacked this tool to deflect attention from the dire domestic political, social, and economic conditions across the landscape of Arab states. This created space for these issues to find more open expression in what would emerge as the first wave of Arab uprisings in 2011.
We also must remember that the individual and collective aspirations of the Arab masses during this period were also experiencing a broader sense of despondency, marked by the unchecked nature of Israeli regional bravado. The supposedly corrective agenda of the Obama administration proved to be hollow, as the new US president failed to decisively depart from the approach of the Bush era. Not only did Obama continue the destructive US policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon. He also maintained comfortable relations with Washington-backed dictators, and the presence of US military bases across the region.
Although we cannot draw a linear connection between the war on terror in Palestine and the Arab uprisings, the Palestinian situation has often symbolically embodied the Arab political aspiration for emancipation from Western colonial bondage, and hence should be considered a factor in the broader sense of hopelessness about the status quo that led the revolutionary conditions to ignite.
Israel has long acted as a laboratory to research, develop, and test cutting-edge security technologies and doctrines, all funded by the US taxpayer. It was thus uniquely well positioned to take advantage of the financial windfalls that the war on terror released for such projects.
Israel quickly became a global leader in the development of drone warfare capabilities, border detection systems, aggressive “anti-terror” hit-squad doctrines, and elaborate spy and signal intelligence systems. It developed and tested all of these weapons and strategies within the Palestinian arena, the Gaza Strip in particular, where the territory’s near-hermetic sealing gave such technologies the stamp of being “battle-tested.”
A distinct and mature Israeli military-industrial complex has now developed in the shadow of the war on terror. We witness its effects on battlefields as far removed as the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Burmese junta’s suppression of the Rohingya. These technologies have also played a key role in US domestic affairs, from the use of Israeli drone technology on the US-Mexico border, to the presence of Israeli-trained policing squads patrolling US cities.
The Israeli military-industrial complex has now spun off commercially, marketing its products not only to states but to any customer with the money to pay. Hollywood serial rapist Harvey Weinstein even hired the private investigator firm Black Cube, composed of former Mossad agents, to spy on and harass his victims. Most recently, an Israeli spy-tech company, the NSO Group, was revealed to have sold its “no click” Pegasus virus spy software to a wide range of dubious characters, from Saudi monarchs to Mexican drug lords.
The US war on terror has clearly inflicted enormous costs on its victims in the main theaters, Iraq and Afghanistan. After these countries, we could probably place the Palestinian case in an unenviable third place among those political arenas that it has most directly affected. Yet victory through the deployment of military might has proved elusive, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Palestine. Such methods are incapable of solving the core political questions at stake.
In view of the terrible human costs, it is incumbent upon US political forces to press for an immediate and unconditional end to the policies of the war on terror. They must also work for the political questions at the heart of these “conflicts” to be addressed on the basis of principles enshrined in international law — in particular the right of peoples to self-determination.
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