Middle East builds to a summer of hate

New oil is being poured on the smouldering fires of old enmities
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The Independent Online
IN JORDAN and Egypt, they are predicting an explosion by the autumn. In Lebanon, the betting is the detonation will occur in mid-summer. In Jerusalem, the Palestinians - and a large number of Israelis - fear the worst on an almost hourly basis. Palestinian-Israeli confrontations now occur several times daily - with almost the same frequency as they did during the intifada uprising that preceded the now-dead Oslo agreement. And still, incredibly, oil is being poured upon the fire.

The latest provocation against the Arabs has been the work of United States House speaker Newt Gingrich, whose flirtation with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has included a motorcade past the proposed site of an American embassy in Jerusalem - anathema to any peace-maker who believes that Jerusalem's future must be decided under the terms of the Oslo agreement - and an insistence that Israel, and only Israel, can decide how much occupied land should be returned to the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat, according to Mr Gingrich, is to blame for the virtual collapse of the "peace process".

This, of course, is news to the Europeans who are warning with ever more desperation that the Middle East is approaching disaster. The European Union itself is considering whether Israel should be blocked from all future trade concessions with Europe because of its settlements policy - EU diplomats were outraged to find that produce arriving in Europe from the ever-growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza was being labelled "made in Israel" - while President Jacques Chirac has been infuriated by Mr Netanyahu's rejection of his offer of a "Saviours of Peace" conference, launched with Egyptian President Mubarak in Paris two weeks ago.

The Israeli army has already staged a computer projection of the violence which could soon break out on the West Bank and Gaza. Another wicked suicide bomb by a Palestinian might provide the Netanyahu cabinet with a reason to re-take West Bank towns - in a search, no doubt, for "terrorists" - where they would be confronted by Mr Arafat's armed policemen. Already, Israeli "intelligence sources" (for which read the Israeli army's chief of staff) have been telling the Jerusalam Post that Mr Arafat may have been smuggling rocket-propelled grenades - "even missiles" - through a series of tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt.

This fantasy - all the odder since Israel itself insisted on controlling the Palestine-Egyptian border beneath which this subterranean burrowing has supposedly taken place - helps to set the stage for the battle to come. Even history is being re-written with this apparent aim. When in 1996, Israeli artillerymen slaughtered 106 Lebanese refugees sheltering in a United Nations position at Qana in southern Lebanon, they claimed they were shooting at Hizbollah gunmen at least 600 feet from the UN barracks. Last month, however, Israel's representative at the UN, Zvi Cohen, claimed, untruthfully, that the Hizbollah had been using the UN position as "their headquarters". This astonishing and mendacious statement went unchallenged. If Mr Cohen actually meant what he said, however, the implications are appalling - that Israel deliberately fired at the UN compound, something it has hitherto always denied. What will happen to the UN soldiers north of the Israeli border if the expected conflict spreads to Lebanon?

Israeli officers involved in the end-of-peace computer projection in the West Bank say that there would be massive bloodshed, with hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead. Yet Mr Arafat is still, according to Israel, not doing enough to "crack down on terrorism", even though the PLO leader has detained at least 70 Hamas members since 29 March (the day on which the Hamas leader Muhi al-Din al-Sharif was mysteriously killed) - most of whom, according to Amnesty International, were cruelly tortured by the PLO in prisons in Ramallah and Jericho.

At least 12 men have been murdered in Palestinian custody - all held for questioning about "threats to Israel's security" - though not a word of criticism of this appalling abuse of human rights has come from the US. Nor about Israel's now overt decision to hold 22 Lebanese as hostages in return for information about the fate of missing Israeli servicemen. Of these 22, one has been held for 12 years; originally imprisoned in the notorious Khiam jail by Israel's proxy Lebanese militia allies, Ali Hussein Ali Ammar was then secretly - and illegally, under international law - transferred to Israel where he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years for "membership of an illegal organisation" and military training inside Lebanon.

When he was due for release in 1991, he was put under "administrative detention" and Israel admits that he and the other 21 Lebanese are now held solely as "bargaining chips".

American cowardice - in the face of the immensely powerful Jewish lobby in the US - has produced a situation in which Washington remains supinely silent while Mr Netanyahu, according to the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot, threatens to "burn Washington", should President Bill Clinton attempt to force Israel to accept a 13 per cent withdrawal from occupied Arab land.

All the while, the State Department and the US press talk about "putting the peace process back on track", the tiredest and most untruthful metaphor in recent Middle East history. And still American journalists refuse to explain how or why the "peace process" has collapsed. Indeed, only last week, Richard Cohen was telling Washington Post readers that "on any given day, it looks as if a deal can be reached".

Could anything be further from the truth? Subconsciously, perhaps, the world is beginning to understand the nature of the nightmare scenario confronting the Middle East.

Hitherto, it has been a habit to distance Arab populations from their dictators when attacking Arab countries - before bombing their cities, Presidents Reagan and Bush respectively assured Libyans and Iraqis that Washington had no argument with them personally. It was an acknowledgement of the lack of democracy in the Arab world. Now, oddly, this same practice is being applied to Israel; we are repeatedly told how many Israelis disagree with Mr Netanyahu, how many American Jews dissociate themselves from the Israeli government's policies - as if the Netanyahu cabinet is an Arab- style dictatorship rather than the much-trumpeted democracy Israel always claims to be.

In this way, the West, too, may be preparing itself for another conflict in the Middle East, one from which the Israeli people are already absolved. In the Arab world, the fear is simpler: that Mr Netanyahu and his government are trying to provoke a war that will prove Oslo is dead, and that the Arabs will be blamed. They can be sure of the second.

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