Middle East: A bitter, horrific conflict - and still no end in sight

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The Independent Online

Journalists are frequently accused of being interested only in bad news. Not so in the Middle East. The media falls eagerly on the smallest suggestion that the Oslo "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians can be brought back from the dead. But this year the news has only been bad.

When the year began, the Palestinian intifada was but three months old, and had claimed some 300 lives. By the time it had ended, the death toll was over 1,000, and the conflict had hardened still further into a war.

In between, both sides had resorted to considerably nastier methods. The hard-line Islamists began dispatching suicide bombers and gunmen – usually fanatical young men – into Israel with instructions to murder as many civilians as possible. And the Israeli armed forces had begun using war planes to bomb the occupied territories for the first time since the 1967 war.

Ceasefires came and went, none fully imposed or lasting long. As 2002 approached, international mediators still wearily brandished two dog-eared "road maps" to peace – ceasefire and security plans drawn up by a commission led by the former US senator George Mitchell and the director of the CIA, George Tenet.

But it was a year in which diplomacy failed spectacularly – undermined in part by the United States' failure to take a robust line with Israel's government, or to dispel Palestinian perceptions that it is too biased to mediate.

Israel demanded seven days of total quiet before beginning to implement the Mitchell Report – a condition that international mediators saw as about as realistic as demanding a crime-free week in Los Angeles. As the year grew older, suspicions mounted that Israel was blocking the report.

Diplomacy was always going to be tough, given the two leaders at the heart of the conflict. In February, Ariel Sharon – the bullish right-wing 73-year-old leader of Likud – confounded those who wrote off his chances of becoming Israel's leader after he was disgraced by a 1983 commission of inquiry into the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Disillusioned by worsening violence and convinced by a brilliant public relations campaign mounted by their government, the Israeli electorate turned to a man whom they believed would make them secure and take a firm line with Yasser Arafat. In February, Mr Sharon was elected Prime Minister in an unprecedented landslide, sending Ehud Barak into oblivion after a mere 21 months in office.

It placed Mr Sharon face to face with his old adversary, Yasser Arafat. The fate of the region lay in the hands of two septuagenarians – a stubborn Israeli ideologue and ex-general who appears to believe that he can bludgeon the Palestinians into line by using military force, and the mercurial and fickle Palestinian leader, locked in an unending struggle to reconcile his ties with the Americans and the West with a rising tide of radicalism on the street.

By the end of the year, Mr Sharon had deployed his tanks only a few hundred yards from Mr Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. The restless Palestinian leader was no longer able to travel from country to country in his endless quest to curry support. His helicopters in Gaza lay in ruins – destroyed by an Israeli rocket strike. He was confined to the West Bank, barred by Israel from even going to nearby Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations. Ariel Sharon had, theatrically, declared him "irrevelant" – a position not supported by the international community.

For the people on both sides it was a year of unrelenting misery, punctuated by individual nightmares. The Palestinians of the West Bank are unlikely to forget the invasion of six of their towns by the Israeli army in October, in the aftermath of the first ever assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister by Palestinian guerrillas. Rechavam Zeevi, the tourism minister, was shot dead in a Jerusalem hotel by guerrillas from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, avenging the death seven weeks earlier of their leader, Abu Ali Mustafa, who was blown apart at his desk in Ramallah when two Israeli helicopter missiles were fired through its windows.

Mr Zeevi's virulent brand of politics – which included advocating the mass deportation of Arabs from the occupied territories – did not diminish the outrage in Israel and abroad over his murder. The army stayed in parts of the Palestinian-run Bethlehem for 10 days. By the time they withdrew, more than a dozen Palestinians lay dead – including a teenage boy, shot in Manger Square yards from the place of Christ's birth.

And none of the 3.2 million Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza will forget the debilitating effect of life under an unrelenting Israeli military siege that has isolated several hundred towns and villages for months. Economic statistics released this month by the Office of the United Nations Special Co-ordinator revealed the scale of the impact: between $2.4bn (£1.6bn) and $3.2bn (£2.1bn) has been lost to the Palestinian economy since the intifada started.

Unemployment had risen in the Gaza Strip to around 50 per cent – bringing with it more hopeless poverty and further political radicalisation. And yet there was precious little evidence that the blockade had achieved what Israel says is its goal – which is to make the country secure from infiltration by Palestinian guerrillas.

For the Israelis, the nightmares were among the worst they have known since the creation of the state in 1948. The year brought horrific and heart-rending scenes. They included the death of eight young people, mostly soldiers, mown down by a bus at a roadside stop by a driver from Gaza; the killing of a further 21 young people, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, blown to pieces by a suicide bomber outside a Tel Aviv disco in June; the slaughter of 15 people at a Jerusalem pizzeria in August.

The most shocking and sickening of all came this month, when two Hamas suicide bombers simultaneously detonated themselves within a few yards of one another in the middle of west Jerusalem on a crowded Saturday night. The following morning a third suicide bomber, also from Hamas, attacked a bus near Haifa. Within only 12 hours, 26 Israelis had been killed. No amount of condemnation from Yasser Arafat quelled the world's anger. Immense pressure was placed on him to dismantle the violent Islamic opposition groups and jail their leaders at a time when their support on the street is stronger than ever.

What, then, of 11 September, the event that changed the world? Even as the dust was settling amid the ruins of the World Trade Centre, Israel had moved to draw a comparison with its conflict. It launched a full-scale PR drive to present itself as a free democracy facing an existential threat from terrorists no different to Osama bin Laden.

This did not convince the Europeans, but it made an impact on American opinion, especially after the Islamic militants helped Israel's case with its triple suicide-bombing assault this month. Mr Sharon's mantra became "terror is terror", and that it is wrong to differentiate between a Palestinian suicide bomber and the hijackers of the jets that slammed into the heart of New York.

No one was persuaded by the Palestinian attempts to argue that they, too, were the victims of terror in the form of assassinations, tank shellings, settlement building, house demolitions, and the ploughing up of olive orchards and citrus groves. The latter events became a matter of routine during the year.

The core of the problem in the Middle East, however, was not forever changed by the atrocities in the US. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians remained, at heart, exactly what it was before: a war over the occupation and settlement of one people's land by a stronger neighbouring power. And next year, one way or another, the battle will continue.