This column could not have been written if this writer were working for any mainstream American newspaper. Nor would the views expressed in this article find any time on a major American television channel, although there is extensive coverage of Iraq and west Asia on American media networks and channels.
Abu Abbas died in American custody in a prison in Iraq a week ago. For those who recall Abu Abbas, the name instantly brings back memories of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, which was hijacked by the Palestinians 19 years ago. Abu Abbas, whose real name was Mohamed Aboul Abbas, was the mastermind of that terrorist operation.
For most Americans, one of the earliest terrorist experiences was when Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American Jew on board the Achille Lauro, was shot by the hijackers and then thrown overboard. Television images of Klinghoffer in his wheelchair alerted Americans to the scourge of modern-day terrorism just as pictures of the cremation of Rupin Katyal brought home to Indians a new face of terrorism in 1999.
Katyal was the 25-year-old newly- wed who had the misfortune of annoying the hijackers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, which was taken to Kandahar, and was stabbed to death for not keeping his head down as ordered by the terrorists.
The death of Abbas was mentioned in passing by most television networks in the United States of America and the news was tucked away in a corner of the world page in many American newspapers. But his arrest in Baghdad in April last year, his detention in a high-security prison at Baghdad International Airport and his subsequent death together typify what was wrong with America’s war against Iraq. It is important to revisit Abbas’s case, if only because the Spaniards, if indications at the time of writing turn out to be true, are the latest to pay a price for that ill-advised war and the subsequent occupation of Iraq. Who will be next'
When the Americans detained Abbas 11 months ago, the Pentagon touted it as a great victory in the war against terrorists. There was still hope, then, that weapons of mass destruction would be found: so the arrest of the mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking merely served to reinforce what was being propagated as a just war against evil. The American media swallowed the spin about the “capture” of Abbas without asking any questions. But it is worthwhile to look at the facts. After the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, when peace was on the west Asian horizon, India, like many other countries, opened a diplomatic representation in Gaza accredited to the Palestinian National Authority headed by Yasser Arafat. An occasional visitor to the Indian mission in Gaza was Abbas. He frequently sought out Indian diplomats in Gaza at official functions and engaged them in conversation.
Lest anyone should conclude that Indian diplomats in Gaza were hobnobbing with a dreaded terrorist, it must be said that Abbas was granted an amnesty under the Oslo peace accords in 1996: he returned from exile in Baghdad and lived in Gaza till 2000.
The point about the presence of Abbas in Gaza from 1996 to 2000 should not be missed. Israel may make compromises with the truth, it may compromise on its commitment to uphold international laws and conventions, but the one thing that Israel will never do is to compromise its security or defence.
For four years, Abbas was in and out of Gaza with the knowledge of the Israeli government and its security and intelligence services. The Americans also knew that he was travelling into and out of Gaza: they never made any effort to lay their hands on this man, who, almost overnight, became the “important terrorist Aboul Abbas” in the Bush administration’s effort to justify the war in Iraq.
If the Israelis had even a minor suspicion that Abu Abbas could be a threat to their security, they would have eliminated him. Or they would have incarcerated him or tried him for acts of terror against Israel, which he had, indeed, once organized. Follow the ongoing debate in Israel about whether the nuclear whistle-blower, Mordechai Vanunu, should be re-arrested even after he has served out his 18 years, most of it in solitary confinement: that is how that country deals with anyone who might represent a threat to its security.
By allowing Abbas to move unhindered in areas under the PNA, Israel facilitated his metamorphosis from a super-terrorist to a peacemaker. He endorsed the peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and campaigned to drop parts of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s charter which were inimical to Israel.
Although Abbas was born in a refugee camp in Yarmouk in Syria, his family originally came from Tira near Haifa in Israel. A few years ago, the Israelis had gone to the extent of letting Abbas into Israel, allowing him to visit the old family home in Tira.
It is not as if the US media is unaware of all this. In May 1996, to cite one example, after Abbas moved into Gaza, the CNN correspondent, Bob Reynolds, interviewed him and documented the transformation of the one-time terrorist to a peacemaker. And yet, CNN at no time challenged the Bush administration’s claims or disinformation about the arrest of the “important terrorist Aboul Abbas” in Baghdad.
During the 11 months of his detention in occupied Iraq, the Americans did not file any charges against Abbas. But he was also not given access to a lawyer or allowed to contact his family. Other than the Americans, his only contact in jail was with the Red Cross, which, in a twist to the mystery of his death, had no indication from the Americans that Abbas was unwell in custody.
At one time, the Americans wanted to hand Abbas over to the Italians, their close allies in the invasion of Iraq. In 1986, Abbas had been tried in absentia in Italy for Klinghoffer’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
But so hollow has been the Bush administration’s claim about Abbas being a wanted terrorist that the Italians showed no interest in having him — not even to serve his sentence.
The arrest, detention and custodial death of Abbas are a reminder of Washington’s total lack of direction or purpose in Iraq. It is also a warning that unless the US can make an honest confession of its dreadful mistakes in Iraq and allow the United Nations to take charge of the country, it is strengthening the hands of terrorists and aiding the case of Islamic fundamentalists with each passing day.
Any such confession is too much to hope for — especially in an election year in the US. Under the circumstances, the Indians can only take comfort from the wisdom shown by their government in dissociating the country from the US-led occupation of Iraq.