When is a rampage not a rampage?

Robert Fisk is infuriated by the flaws in a life of Palestine's great f emale leader
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The Independent Culture
Hanan Ashrawi: A Passion for Peace Barbara Victor Fourth Estate £18.99

It is difficult to find words to describe this book. It is so irredeemably dreadful that one can hardly do anything but list its faults: its factual inaccuracies, its bias, its hopeless version of Middle East history. Victor claims she has written an "even-handed account" of the Palestinian uprising and the peace process, an assertion that strains credulity to its limits.

It is not just its intrinsic prejudice that makes this book so hard to take seriously, although that is as good a place as any to start. Throughout, Palestinians murder, stab and burn to death innocent Israelis while Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settlerwho slaughtered 29 Palestinian civilians in Hebron last year is held up as "an extreme example" of a settler who went on a "rampage". So when is a rampage not a rampage? When it is carried out by a Palestinian, of course, in which case it is a "terrorist" act or an act of "terror," words which Victor uses 76 times in 275 pages - more than once every four pages and all but once about Palestinians. Israelis who kill Palestinians are occasionally "death squads" but usually "soldiers" and often "commandos". Israel's Phalangist militia allies who butchered hundreds of Palestinian civilians in Beirut in 1982 are respectfully referred to by Victor as "soldiers".

If the author cannot avoid double standards, however, what excuse is there for her shoddy grasp of facts? She says that the Lebanese civil war began in 1978 - when it began in 1975. She says that the Israeli army "withdrew" from Lebanon in 1982, when in fact it only began its withdrawal in 1983, kept 20,000 troops there in 1984 and still maintains a 2,000-strong occupation force in the south of the country today. She claims the Balfour declaration was made in 1921 - it was published in November, 1917 - and wrongly states that the declaration "provided for two states, Israel and Palestine, to exist side by side". It did nothing of the kind. Balfour said that Britain "supported" (not "created" as Victor claims) a Jewish "National Home " in Palestine; thedivision of Palestine into two states was a UN decision, taken in 1947. Jewish "terrorism", Victor tells us - in the only reference of its kind to a Jewish group - "was never exported to foreign cities"; she is apparently unaware of t he murder of Lord Moyne by Jewish assassins in Cairo in 1944.

The sloppiness does not end there. Incredibly, Victor describes the Lebanese Phalange (whose right-wing origins lay in the 1936 Berlin Olynpics) as a "centrist party". She mixes up the Libyan capital of Tripoli with the northern Lebanese city of the samename and believes that Syria sent troops into Lebanon in 1978 (Syrian forces arrived in 1976). She thinks that Israeli troops only reached Beirut after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel in September, 1982 (they had been besieging the city for three months) and goes on to claim that the TWA jet hijacked to Beirut in 1985 by Lebanese Shias was pirated by Palestinians. She names the head of the PFLP General Command as "Ahmad Jibul" (he is Ahmad Jibril) and believes that only two (rather than three) airliners were blown up by Palestinians at Dawson's Field in 1970. How, one is left asking, did Hanan Ashrawi, the respected former spokeswoman for the PLO and now the most prominent human rights activist in the West Bank, ever get mixed up in this literary venture?

Not all the errors appear to be the result of slipshod homework. Describing the cruel and savage murders of two Israelis, Victor insists they were killed in Israel, even though she makes it perfectly clear that they lived (and were killed) on occupied Arab land - the first in Gaza, the second east of Jerusalem, neither of which are in Israel. The Palestinian people, she informs us, have "a history of violence", adding elsewhere that an older generation of conquered Palestinians felt "grateful for the chance to work in Israeli factories". What does all this mean? What does it mean when Victor describes the border between Israel and the West Bank as "imaginary" or when she reacts to an apparent attempt by an Israeli soldier to shoot Hanan Ashrawi as "something new to add to her list of credentials"?

Somewhere in all this is a book waiting to be written, a work which, just occasionally, can be glimpsed through the crust of cliches and bias. Victor does clearly understand the brutal nature of Israeli occupation and makes at least one pertinent remark on the Islamisation of Palestinian women in the occupied territories (she rightly notices that the Intifada did not liberate Palestinian women). Hanan Ashrawi's views are quoted at length and her Arab critics rightly given a voice, although Victor fails to realise the extent to which Arafat betrayed Ashrawi. On one rather weird level, this book appears to be intended to set her up as president of a future Palestine, a putative role for which Hanan Ashrawi may not thank Victor. The author has a tendency to romanticise her heroine and it comes as no surprise to find the dust jacket informing us that Barbara Victor ("who has covered the Middle East for most of her professional life") is the author of four novels. What advice can one give? Stick to novels,Barbara, stick to novels.