Memo From Cairo
Disentangling Layers of a Loaded Term in Search of a Thread of Peace
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN, New York Times, February 25, 2009
CAIRO — If President Obama is serious about repairing relations with the Arab world and re-establishing the United States as an honest broker in Middle East peace talks, one step would be to bridge a chasm in perception that centers on one contentious word: terrorism.
The recent fighting in Gaza offered a potent reminder of the challenge Washington faces in mediating a dispute when the United States refuses to speak directly with some of the main players, including Hamas and Hezbollah, which it calls terrorist groups. Whether the United States has declined to speak with hostile groups because it considers them terrorists, or whether it slaps the terrorist label on groups it wants to sanction or marginalize, a battle over the term terrorist has become a proxy for the larger issues that divide Washington and the Arab public.
The perception gap, which grew wider when President George W. Bush declared his war on terror in 2001, was blown even further apart in Gaza, when most Arabs came away certain who the real terrorists were.
“Public opinion views what happened in Gaza as a kind of terrorism,” said Muhammad Shaker, a former Egyptian ambassador to Britain. “And on the other side, they see Hamas and other such organizations as groups who are trying to liberate their countries.”
Many here said they saw little distinction between Hamas’s shooting rockets into civilian areas of Israel and Israel’s shooting rockets into civilian areas of Gaza, even if Hamas militants were operating there or just hiding out.
Israelis often focus on intent in drawing a distinction between Israel and Hamas — saying their forces kill civilians only as an unfortunate consequence of war while Hamas aims attacks at civilians. “The Israeli military effort is to neutralize the forces of aggression that have been used against its civilians, and there sometimes can be collateral damage,” said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. “That happens in every war and every conflict.”
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