In the castles of northern Syria there once lurked the fearsome sect of the Assassins, who sent forth young men to die, enchanted by a vision of paradise. In modern Damascus the zealots of Islamic Jihad hold forth atlength upon the merits of marty rdom for Palestine, Arabism and Islam.

The Independent today prints an interview with Dr Fathi Shkaki, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, whosepraise for recent suicide bomb attacks against Israelis has been broadcastthroughout the Middle East.

These sentiments are rich in political power. In an age of discredited and corrupt Arab regimes, the zealot argues, there are still men and women prepared to go to inevitable death for their religious ideals. However much these incantations jar upon the ear, Western governments should not underestimate their resonance.

Yet there is a wider truth to which zealotry itself is blind. To walk unblinkingly to one's own doom is an awesome act of commitment, but if it is a deed performed in a false cause, it is robbed of meaning. And the world to which Islamic Jihad and its martyrs would commit the peoples of the Middle East - Muslim, Jew and Christian - would not be paradise but violent limbo, not serving Palestine,Arabism or the Islamic religion, but enshrining the power of the street gunman and the militant political cleric.

It is important to make one distinction. International law, and United Nations resolutions, regard Israel's military occupation of a slice of south Lebanon as illegal and armed resistance to it as legitimate. But if south Lebanon was the testing ground for suicide bombers, suburban Israel is now their hunting ground. That alone should give Israeli leaders cause to push forward with the peace negotiations.

The continued presence of Israeli troops on occupied Arab land allows Islamic Jihad to justify, in many Palestinian eyes, the slaughter of Israelis within and outside Israel's 1967 borders.Of course, there are many Arabs who will never accept the existence of a Jewish state, and who will regard last week's commemoration of Auschwitz as just another reminder that the Arab people of Mandate Palestine should not have paid with the loss of their land for the crimes of modern Europe.

That is why the British government and its European partners should continue to support Israel's painful progress towards coexistence with its neighbours. Only hard negotiation will go some way towards righting the wrongs that were visited upon the Palestinian people and help them to rebuild an old but fractured society. The suicides of their sons offer them nothing but bloodstained delusion. And the Middle East has had enough of that.