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Moments That Made The Year; Middle East ruled by death and hypocrisy

From Qana to Algeria, western blindness only ensured that things got worse, writes Robert Fisk
It was a vicious, hypocritical year in the Middle East, a year which has scattered the seeds of the dreadful events which we shall inevitably witness in the year to come. Almost every decision taken by every leader in the region was wrong, though with the grim perspective of hindsight it is easy to see how one act of folly led to another. Yigal Amir, the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin, must be laughing in his prison cell; everything he prayed for is coming true.

Shimon Peres had postponed the elections in Israel but then, for reasons still unexplained, the Israelis murdered the Hamas bomber, Yamia Ayash, in Gaza. From this and from Israel's gloating over his death there inevitably followed the Palestinians' wicked revenge: bus bombings in Israel.

And from those bombings followed an "anti-terrorist" conference in Egypt in March at which President Bill Clinton, grieving over Israel's civilian dead and desperate to give Mr Peres his election victory, gave Israel the green light for any future "anti-terrorist" adventures. So when a bomb killed a Lebanese boy in Lebanon in April, the Hizbollah retaliated with Katyusha rockets into Israel and Mr Peres let his army off the leash - courtesy of the Clinton green light - to give the Middle East another bloodbath, the cruelly named "Operation Grapes of Wrath".

It was supposed to win Mr Peres the election; Mr Clinton would also later bomb Arabs, this time in Iraq, in another pre-election demonstration of toughness, although with rather more success at the subsequent polls. But Israel's April bombardment of southern Lebanon targeted civilians rather than Hizbollah men. A mere 13 guerrillas were killed but every day the Israeli air force and army struck at civilians, firing at apartment blocks, ambulances, UN bases, all the time claiming to be hitting "terrorist targets". Israel slaughtered more than 170 men, women and children, 101 of them in the UN's base at Qana. The Israelis claimed it was a mistake - the Hizbollah had been firing from Qana at an Israeli patrol laying booby trap bombs in the UN zone - but the UN concluded the shelling was probably deliberate and The Independent revealed a videotape which clearly showed an Israeli pilotless photo-reconnaissance aircraft over Qana while the atrocity was taking place.

From President Clinton, who expressed such understandable sorrow at the deaths of Israelis two months earlier, came not a word of condemnation. But it didn't help Mr Peres, who lost the election, partly, perhaps, because his traditional Arab Israeli supporters were so disgusted by Qana. When Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud government took over, the Arab world quickly understood what this meant: Mr Netanyahu in effect tore up the Oslo accord while its US guarantors did no more than cluck disapprovingly from the sidelines. The deal that now looks set to be struck will not change that.

For the Arabs, it was another historic betrayal by the West. Promised independence if they helped the Allies in the 1914-18 war, their world had been secretly partitioned by the superpowers, while the British promised their support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Now the "land-for-peace" agreement, under which the US had staked its honour, and under which the Palestinians were encouraged to believe that they would acquire a state, proves to have been worth no more than the promises which Lawrence of Arabia gave to the princes of the Hejaz.

Yet the Americans remained obsessed with the idea of Islamic "terrorism", with the encouragement of the Israelis.

When a TWA airliner fell into the sea off New York, American journalists vied with each other to name the guilty Arabs while the Jerusalem Post blamed Iran, referring to the "slobbering" Muslims responsible for such a supposed crime.

Now that the Boeing company may have more to explain than the mullahs of Tehran - by the year's end, a technical fault seemed the most likely explanation for the disaster - such claims have been quietly forgotten. But when the Americans were hit by a real act of "Islamist" violence, in the Saudi city of Dhahran, they were, as usual, unprepared.

Ossama bin Laden, one of many Gulf dissidents who may yet succeed in destroying the corrupt regimes of the Gulf in order to impose their own ruthless version of "Islam", appeared in the fastness of Afghanistan to tell The Independent that the British and the French should also withdraw their soldiers from the land of Mecca and Medina.

But ironically, last year was the start of a new European relationship with the Middle East. Mainly because of America's collapsing credibility and prestige in the region, the Arabs saw Europe, and particularly France, the old mandate power in Syria and Lebanon, as an alternative to the world's only superpower.

When the French Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, toured the Middle East, telling a lot of home truths which the Arabs and an ever larger number of Europeans had been waiting to hear, he was feted as a saviour. He was nothing of the kind, but France's diplomatic initiative - it included the involvement of Paris in the April ceasefire in Lebanon - marks a new role for Europe in a region in which it lost all credit during the 1956 Suez invasion.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the bad got worse. Algeria's sadistic war became ever more gruesome as a military-backed regime went on fighting an ever more savage "Islamist" guerrilla army whose throat- cuttings have embarrassed even the most fundamentalist of Iranian clerics.

In Iraq, the children went on dying, at least until the oil began to flow again this month, while Saddam Hussein continued to rule as his son killed his son-in-law and then got shot himself.

Such family horrors helped to distract a US that is now being divided by Israel - between those of its citizens, led by prominent members of the Jewish community, who still support Mr Netanyahu and those who dare to question the United States' submissiveness to Israel's every whim.

Middle East Correspondent