Israeli tanks roll in and another truce is history

War on Terrorism: Middle East
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The Independent Online

Basemal-Natsheh has come to know the signs. First – late at night – there is the thin mosquito whine of an Israeli spy plane, flying high above the rooftops, scouting out the alley ways, the half-built Arab homes, the enemy landscape.

Then, an hour or two later, comes the crash of helicopter missiles and the tank shells. And then the casualties start to arrive at the hospital in which he works in Hebron. Brought bleeding and – in the case of two Palestinian guerrillas yesterday – beheaded by a missile.

Yesterday was a particularly bad day, the worst that Mr al-Natsheh can remember since the one in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli settler, gunned down 29 Muslims as they worshipped in a mosque in this impossibly divided West Bank city.

By mid-afternoon yesterday – as machine-gun fire still reverberated around the streets – six Palestinians had been killed by the Israelis. And the doctors at the Al-Ahli Hospital were preparing for more injured arrivals.

In the early hours, Israeli troops and tanks moved deep into the southern part of the city, seized several Arab neighbourhoods and clamped a curfew on thousands of terrified residents. Israeli commanders would not say how long their forces would stay.

The United States and its allies in Europe have repeatedly denounced such invasions by Israel into areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

But this time – as another US-brokered truce was consigned to the dustbin – Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, had made it clear in advance that the western world's objections do not much matter to him.

"From now on we will count only on ourselves," the Israeli premier said only the night before (in a speech that was astounding even by the outspoken ex-general's standards). Israel, he said, was not prepared to be the same as Czechoslovakia in 1938, the victim of "appeasement" – in this case, America's desire to build bridges with the Arab and Islamic world in the hope of tracking down the mass murderers of 11 September.

And Israel, despite its nuclear arsenal, its modern US-equipped army, its political support in the West and the $3bn (£2bn) poured into its coffers each year by the American taxpayer, was cast – as ever – as the vulnerable one, a small country about to be swallowed by fascists due to the West's willingness to compromise.

Relations between the US and Israel have been under growing strain since the World Trade Centre attacks nearly a month ago. But Mr Sharon's latest words, coupled with yesterday's invasion of Hebron, placed the famous "special relationship" under intense pressure. There is no doubt that Washington is angered by Israel's recent conduct, and this was confirmed yesterday.

Still mourning the 6,000 people killed in New York and Washington, the United States considers this to be its hour of need, the deepest crisis since the Kennedy assassination. And just when it needs Israel's assistance – by agreeing to dampen down its conflict with the Palestinians so that coalition-building in the Arab-Islamic world can go forward – Mr Sharon has turned his back. The key question now is whether the Bush administration will do anything about it.

It is unlikely that Mr Sharon will be much deterred by the White House's belated public response to his words, billed by Western news agencies last night as a "rare display of anger with Israel". The Israeli premier's remarks on appeasement were said by the US to be "unacceptable".

Even some Israeli officials felt that Mr Sharon had overstepped the mark. His words will have grated with Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, whose time in Mr Sharon's government must surely now be drawing to an end.

Zalman Shoval, a senior Sharon aide, was deployed yesterday to assure the media that the Prime Minister "did not imply, in any way, that America and its leaders were dealing in a dishonourable way... as it pertains to Israel. What the Prime Minister intended was to give a warning to everyone – including ourselves, but especially to the leaders of the free world – that appeasement never works."

Few were convinced. "This is a real test of their relationship," said Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian politician and commissioner of public policy for the Arab League. "It will establish whether the United States is willing to show some backbone, and stand up to Israel, which is arrogantly trying to dictate policy to the US."

Mr Sharon will, as ever, justify his words and deeds by citing the continuing Palestinian violence, which has now reared up again. On Wednesday, two Israelis were shot dead in a settlement by Hamas suicide gunmen. A day later, another Palestinian kamikaze gunman killed three people in the Israeli town of Afula. In Hebron, Jewish settlers – a few hundred fanatics in four enclaves protected from the 120,000 Arab population by the full might of the Israeli army – claimed that yesterday's invasion came after Palestinian gunmen had been firing on Jews at a sacred site.

And yesterday, another Israeli was killed in a drive-by shooting near Tulkarm on the West Bank.

These atrocities are, Israeli officials said, proof that the Palestinians are violating the truce, struck by Mr Peres and Yasser Arafat on 26 September, and have no desire for peace.

That may be well true. But the fact remains that the largest number of killings since the latest ceasefire was formalised 10 days ago – at least 25 – have been committed by the Israeli army. Nor is there any doubt that this bloody madness will continue until the fundamental problems of the conflict are tackled.