It was a difficult question. For a start, the world would have called the gunman a 'terrorist'. Any group with which he was associated would have been dubbed a 'terrorist group'. Any country harbouring such a 'terrorist group' would have been threatened with immediate sanctions. And the American president would no doubt have condemned the deed, quite rightly, as a 'wicked crime'.
But that, of course, was not the case. Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron gunman, was an Israeli in Israeli army uniform. And no journalist - not a single Western newspaper or television station - called him a 'terrorist'. Goldstein was associated with the right-wing Jewish Kach movement. But the Kach is legal in Israel. It has offices in New York.
And President Bill Clinton - following the policy of previous US administrations when an Israeli, rather than a Palestinian, is to blame for a massacre - described the slaughter at the Tomb of the Patriarch as 'a gross act of murder', which it clearly was, but also a 'terrible tragedy', as if the dead were victims of some natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tidal wave.
Down the road from el- Hout's Beirut home, around the Palestinian camp of Mar Elias, black flags snapped from lamp poles, telephone wires and walls. 'You damned people helped the Zionists,' a woman screamed at me. 'We don't count for you. We are animals.'
In the cramped offices of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Suheil Natour's voice growled in fury. 'I wonder why the West was prepared to act to protect the Bosnians when 68 of them were killed in the Sarajevo market,' he said. 'And then I wonder why, when almost the same number of Palestinians are killed in a mosque, you people do nothing to protect us. The Palestinians are so weak that the Israelis repeat their crimes against us.'
There followed a familiar litany: Deir Yassin, Sabra and Chatila, Rishon Lezion - all places swamped in Palestinian blood.
It should be said that the Arab states, so loud in their condemnation of Friday's massacre in Hebron, have little moral authority to point the finger of guilt. Egypt may denounce the murders, but its police force is systematically torturing hundreds of Muslim prisoners in Cairo and Assiout. Jordan can condemn the bloodbath while forgetting the slaughter of infinitely more Palestinians by the Jordanian army in 1970. Syria can denounce Israel while ignoring the thousands cut down by the Syrian army in Hama in 1982.
ISRAELIS, too, have a list of atrocities to hold against the Palestinians: a bomb which killed 12 Israelis in a Jerusalem market in 1968; a Palestinian- inspired shooting at Tel Aviv airport that killed 25 people, including several Israelis, in 1972; the massacre of 11 members of Israel's Olympic team at Munich the same year; the killing of 16 civilians at Kiryat Shmona in 1974; the killing of 21 children at Maalot in 1974. And the list continues.
But the special fury of the Arabs - of ordinary Arabs, not their unelected leaders - was directed yesterday at the double standards of the West; of the Americans and Europeans, of the Western press, as well as of the Israelis themselves.
Why were we so surprised at the murders in Hebron, Palestinians in Mar Elias were asking yesterday? They wanted to know if we had forgotten Sabra and Chatila. Had we forgotten how, every time a Palestinian killed an Israeli he was a 'terrorist', but every time an Israeli killed a Palestinian he was a 'deranged Jewish settler', 'an American immigrant', or from a group of 'underground Jewish fighters', but never, never a 'terrorist'?
Trawling through the archives yesterday was, therefore, a rather unsettling business.
On 9 April, 1948, for example, Irgun gunmen - 'terrorists' by any other name - massacred almost 200 Arab men, women and children in the village of Deir Yassin. Many of the women were disembowelled.
How were the killers described in the report by the American news agency, Associated Press? As 'radical underground Jewish fighters'.
In October 1956, 43 Palestinian civilians in the Israeli town of Kafr Kashem were massacred by Israeli troops for innocently breaking a curfew. Then, in 1982, Israeli troops sent their Falangist militia allies into Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut, where up to 800 Palestinian men, women and children - the figure may be as high as 2,000 - were murdered.
Curiously, this particular slaughter does not appear in the Associated Press list of major 'attacks between Israelis and Palestinians' since 1948. Israel's own Kahan commission of inquiry, which indirectly accused Ariel Sharon, the defence minister, of responsibility, noted how, over a period of 36 hours, Israeli soldiers around the camps witnessed some of the killings - but did nothing.
On 20 May 1990, an Israeli soldier lined up a group of Palestinian labourers at Rishon Lezion and murdered seven of them with a sub-machine gun. The slaughter was fully covered by the international press, of course, although the word 'terrorist' was not used. The soldier, it was explained, was deranged.
In subsequent rioting, 13 more Palestinians were killed. Five months later, the Israeli police opened fire on Palestinians in Jerusalem, killing 19 men. As US Secretary of State, it was James Baker's lot to comment on this massacre. He did not call it a 'massacre'. He spoke of it as a 'tragedy' - the word used by President Clinton on Friday.
This list of horror is not comprehensive, but an interesting pattern emerges from it. When Palestinians massacre Israelis, we regard them as evil men. When Israelis slaughter Palestinians, America and other Western nations find it expedient to regard these crimes as tragedies, misunderstandings or the work of individual madmen. Palestinians - in the generic, all-embracing sense of the word - are held to account for these terrible deeds. Israel is not. Thus, over the years, a strange confusion has emerged in the Western response to Israeli misdeeds, a reaction that is ultimately as damaging to Israel as it is to the West itself. When Israeli soldiers or settlers murder Palestinians, they are semantically 'isolated' from their country.
Baruch Goldstein, was an Israeli army reservist holding the rank of major. But in news reports on Friday his 'identity' undertook a weird transformation. No longer referred to as an Israeli soldier, even though he was wearing his army uniform and carrying his military- issue gun; by Friday night he was being called 'an American Jewish immigrant'.
In the space of just 12 hours, the United States had been gently touched by the man's guilt; and by the same process, his Israeli 'identity' had begun to fade.
Yet when Israel as a state is clearly involved in the taking of innocent Arab life - in the massive air raids on Beirut in 1982, for example, in which the Israeli air force was, in early June, killing more than 200 civilians a day - moral guilt was also avoided. These were not 'terrorist' actions; these were military operations against 'terrorist targets'.
The same twisted semantics were applied to last July's Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon. In revenge for the killing of nine Israeli soldiers inside its occupation zone, Israel attacked the villages of southern Lebanon, killing more than 100 men, women and children - almost double the number of innocents slaughtered in Hebron on Friday - and putting 300,000 civilian refugees on the road to Beirut.
As one of the few reporters in Lebanon at the time, I watched women and children shrieking with pain in the hospital wards, their bodies plastered with burns from Israeli phosphorous shells. This 'operation', which killed so many innocents, cost - according to the Israeli finance minister last week - dollars 33m, a bill that Washington helps to underwrite.
And President Clinton's reaction? He blamed the Hizbollah - which killed the nine Israeli soldiers - for all the deaths, then called on 'all sides' to exercise 'restraint'.
AMID this obfuscation, a new rationale has been laid out in the Middle East. It goes like this: America is running a 'peace process'. Anyone who is for it is a friend. That includes Israel, of course, and even Yasser Arafat, so suddenly metamorphosed from super-terrorist into statesman once he recognised Israel. It includes Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
But any Arab who believes the Arafat-Rabin agreement is flawed, any Arab who opposes it, objects to it, disagrees with it - however non-violently - or says anything that might damage it, is transformed into an enemy; or, more specifically, in the words of the US press, becomes an 'enemy of peace'.
Thus, by extension, anyone opposing America's policy in the region - anyone opposing Israel - is an enemy of peace. This all-embracing, generic phrase leads to grotesque distortion. Last year, for example, rioting broke out in Gaza when Israeli troops had dynamited and rocketed the homes of 17 Palestinian families after the killing of a Hamas gunman.
But when the Cable News Network showed a tape of one of the rioters stoning Israeli troops, it described him as 'protesting at the peace process'. If he was fighting Israelis, he must have been an 'enemy of peace'.
Even if that had been his cause of complaint, it was clearly regarded as illegitimate. Yet it is the PLO-Israeli agreement which - in many Palestinian eyes - has permitted Israel to keep both troops and settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It is Arafat, for tens of thousands of his detractors, who has 'legitimised' the Jewish settlements, from which came the killer who massacred the Palestinians of Hebron.
But because American newspapers and television networks also do not want to be regarded as 'enemies of peace', many in the West still do not realise just how disastrously Yasser Arafat's peace accord with Israel is disintegrating; nor why Israel is being directly blamed by Palestinians for the Hebron massacre.
The Israeli government denies any involvement. But that does not mean that Israel is not responsible for the slaughter. For it was Israel's settlement policy, Israel's occupation, Israel's arming of the settlers, and the subsequent Palestinian opposition to that Israeli occupation, which led directly to the bloodbath in Hebron.
If the murderer's act was an 'individual' one, it was also inevitable. In any environment where opponents of Israel are dehumanised into 'terrorist', where Israeli criminals are treated on a different moral plain from Palestinian criminals, such crimes will be committed. Baruch no doubt saw Arabs as 'terrorists' - the same corrosive word that led the Israelis into their Lebanon adventure - and walked into the Hebron mosque on Friday morning in order to exorcise the demons that we had all helped to create for him.
As for Arafat, he could do no more than watch helplessly from the safety of Tunis. 'Nobody cares for him - not even the Israelis, I think,' el-Hout said yesterday, with just a hint of sympathy.
'He has burned all his bridges. I don't think there is a conspiracy as such against him. But the massacre in Hebron has put the man, poor man, on the edge of a cliff. If he doesn't jump off, he will be pushed.
'These killings in Hebron were the official sentence of execution for him as a leader. For Arafat now, anywhere in the world is safer than Palestine.'
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