Of stones and walls

William Safire

October 12, 1990|By William Safire | William Safire,New York Times

ON THE eve of the Hebrew holy time called Succoth, as thousands of Jews prayed at the sacred site known as the Western Wall, a double desecration took place.

A crowd of 3,000 Arabs, many carrying stones brought with intent to throw, took up position overlooking the worshipers at the wall. Amid shrieks of hatred inciting the mob to violence, the bombardment of stones began.

The congregation fled in terror; 28 of those in prayer were reportedly wounded.

That was the desecration of Judaism, designed to provoke police on the scene to bloody reaction.

The desecration of Islam was in the abuse of that religion by political calculators: to whip up fear in the faithful to trigger the attack, to provoke a panicked response from surprised and endangered police, and to sacrifice Palestinian Arab lives in the cause of Saddam Hussein's secular goal of regional domination.

Before joining the rush to the condemnation of Israel sought by the operation's planners, look to motives: who gained a great deal from this bloody episode, and who lost?

Certainly the greatest losers are the score of Palestinian dead. The State of Israel also loses; it had learned to contain the intifada with minimum force, but did not think it necessary to mass experienced anti-riot troops at this holiest of sites, never before the target of terrorists on this scale.

The winners? Yasir Arafat's PLO, which had been languishing outside the media pale after aligning itself with the invaders of Kuwait. Suddenly he's in the news again, not as an accessory to aggression but as the avenger of victims.

The big winner is Saddam Hussein, who has been seeking to change the subject from his money-grubbing conquest of Kuwait to a more messianic jihad.

With the same poignant sense of public relations that had him patting the head of a child hostage on television, Saddam promptly christened his newest missile "the Stone," after the rocks hurled at the Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall. Tipped with poison gas or germs, the Saddam Stone will be aimed at Israel.

In that light of who won and who lost, and in the absolute predictability of Arab demonstrations and U.N. condemnation, logic suggests inexorably that this successful provocation was no accident.

PLO apologists claim their rock-carrying crowd assembled to counter an Israeli religious group that wanted to build a new temple. Never mind that the Israeli courts had banned such a demonstration by Jews, or that the police assured the Arabs no march would take place.

The Iraqi-PLO manipulators used that rumor nonetheless to whip up the crowd and give religious cover to their political incitement. They chose a religious target, undermanned by 40 guards -- and those police unable to cope with the riot by using tear gas and the nonlethal weapons of intifada specialists.

The PLO got what it sought: enough of its hapless followers sacrificed to call the tragedy a "massacre."

We wondered what the Iraqi dictator and his PLO supporter were cooking up in Baghdad; most suspected a terrorist attack on the Dhahran landing docks in Saudi Arabia. But that would have triggered this war's Sarajevo; by having Palestinian Arabs attack worshipers, draw fire and die in Jerusalem, Saddam distracted the West and discombobulated his Arab opponents.

He has now shown how he can use our hesitation to shift attention away from Kuwait and toward Israel.

Bush, following the advice of James Baker and John Kelly (longtime Saddam Hussein manipulatees), criticized the overreaction of Israeli police and merely regretted the worshiper-stoning provocation; our allies will remove the "regret."

The U.N. chastisement registers this Arab concern: that opposition to an expansionist dictator is not to be construed as approval of a democracy where worshipers are too-aggressively protected from organized stoning. Such hypocrisy belongs with the U.N. vote to condemn Israel in 1981 for taking out the Iraqi reactor.

Saddam Hussein will probably attack Israel, as augured in this provocation, seeking estoppel of Arab participation in his defeat.

But his strategic diversion won't work. His complicity in the Succoth double desecration will be one more charge in next year's war crimes trial.

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