In just one paragraph last week, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, used the word "terrorism" five times. Terror. Terrorism. Global terror. International terror. Arab terror, of course. Even the BBC was back using the Israeli lexicon, its reporter at the funerals of the Israelis murdered in last week's suicide bombing talking about "Palestinian terrorism"; it's not a word that the BBC used when an Israeli settlers group murdered a Palestinian baby and two other members of its family just over a week ago. "Terror" is now both an Israeli punctuation mark and a definition, an all-purpose escape clause and a form of delusion.
For it conceals from the Israelis as well as the world an important truth about the Palestinian-Israeli war which is only now emerging: that the Palestinians are no longer afraid. This is the fundamental lesson that the Israelis have not yet understood and which the US administration – forever hoping that Mr Sharon can "crack down" on the Palestinians hard enough to make them come to heel, but softly enough to avoid any massacres – has not grasped. Ehud Barak was promising to break the intifada last October. Ariel Sharon was elected in February promising "security" for Israel. Barak failed. And now so has Sharon.
Last week's wicked suicide bombing in Jerusalem was not just a sign of Palestinian cruelty. It was also a catastrophic failure on the part of the Israeli police and army. Throughout last week, every Arab found on his own in the area of Jaffa Street was being arrested and questioned. Just two days before the pizzeria slaughter, I saw soldiers haul a Palestinian worker to the side of Ben Jehuda Street – 200 yards from the restaurant – and only 24 hours before the bombing, I watched seven Palestinians being lined up for interrogation by Israeli border police in a side road. Yet on Thursday, a Palestinian weighed down with explosives and nails managed to walk into a cafe packed with Israeli women and children.
True, the Israelis have prevented several bombings. The Israeli murder of a Hamas member in Tulkarem just over a week ago may well have stopped a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. But in the end, the suicide bomber always gets through. The Palestinian celebrations – the joy-shooting, the sweets, the dancing in the refugee camps in Lebanon – were grotesque, obscene. But in their terrible way, they contained a fearful message: that Israelis, however innocent, however young, can be made to suffer, just as Palestinian innocents have been made to suffer.
This may still not be apparent to the Israelis themselves. When Palestinian children were gunned down by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones – or for being in an area where stones were being thrown – Israeli spokesmen invented the myth of "child sacrifice". Palestinians, they would have us believe, were deliberately sending their dearly beloved sons and daughters to their deaths for that arch "terrorist" Yasser Arafat. On Friday night, Dore Gold, the Israeli government spokesman, announced that Mr Arafat's Palestinians – there apparently being no difference between the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad – were deliberately targeting Israeli children. Thus when Palestinian children died, it was the fault of Mr Arafat. When Israeli children died, it was the fault of Mr Arafat.
The truth, however, is that Israel is going through a delusional crisis. Refusing to acknowledge that their troops are occupying somebody else's land, that their Jewish settlers – the French word colons is more accurate, for this is a colonial exercise – are building houses on Arab land at an ever-expanding rate, that they have always refused to allow Palestinians a capital in the smallest part of Jerusalem, Israelis have convinced themselves that they are under siege.
What is really happening is that the old modalities have collapsed. For years after the 1967 war which brought the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation, Palestinians existed in a state of vegetative humiliation. They worked for their new Israeli masters, they built Jewish settlements on Palestinian land for their Israeli masters. They worked as collaborators on a massive scale. I remember, in 1976, meeting in Jerusalem two Palestinians openly employed as "policemen" by Israel. In southern Lebanon, the smallest Israeli incursion would send Palestinian guerrillas fleeing northwards towards Beirut in panic. If it was a Saturday, they would arrive, clutching their rifles, and pack themselves into Beirut's cinemas for the matinee performance, especially if the movie was a war film. Loud on rhetoric, low on courage, the Palestinians did what the Israelis wanted them to do. They were largely quiescent, humbled, obedient.
Whether Lebanon changed this – the example of Hizbollah's defeat of the Israeli army is still the subject of daily conversation in Gaza – or whether their own dispossession and defeat simply grew too much to stomach, the Palestinians slowly understood that they no longer needed to obey. Thus, after the initial killing of Palestinian stone-throwers last year, the Palestinians began shooting back. Israeli tank attacks were met by Palestinian mortar fire. Palestinian suicide bombings were met by Israeli death squads, who were met by more Palestinian suicide bombing. President Bush's favourite cliché – the "cycle of violence" – is accurate. In the old days, any Palestinian who dared to resist Israel was ruthlessly crushed. There was no "cycle"; merely repression. The language of force, the Israelis called it then. Mr Sharon believed in it.
When he practised it in Lebanon in 1982, it turned into a tragedy for Israel as well as for the Lebanese and Palestinians. But Mr Sharon didn't learn. The old man still believes in "teaching the Palestinians a lesson" – even though this involves re-teaching the same lesson to that other old man of the Lebanon war, Mr Arafat. But the lesson is disregarded. The Israeli public would like a re-occupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza – since Israel is supposedly under Palestinian "siege", they do not apparently understand that most of the West Bank and Gaza is occupied anyway – and, in the sinister words of an Israeli who escaped last week's bombing, a "sterilisation" of Palestinian territories. Senior Israeli army officers realise this would be madness.
So Mr Sharon is left astride two powerful animals, his right-wing supporters and his army, which is why his "retaliation" for Thursday's bombing involved the destruction of an empty police barracks and the seizure of the one institution in Jerusalem that might have helped restore a peace: Orient House. If Mr Arafat promised his people a nation and failed to deliver, so Mr Sharon promised his people security – and failed to deliver.
The problem is one which Israelis will eventually have to face. When a people lose their fear, they are never afraid again. You cannot re-inject a subject people with fear once they have lost it. An all-powerful Israel thus finds itself confronting a vulnerable but unsubmissive subject population. And as every belligerent knows, once your antagonist has lost his fear, the war is unwinnable.Reuse content