Unholy War: The Bethlehem bellringer, the doctor, the mother. The innocent keep on dying

At the end of a week when violence in the Middle East conflict has reached new, horrific heights, President Bush has asked Israel to hold its fire. Here, Robert Fisk explains why the call could in fact increase Israeli resolve to crush the Palestinians, and on the following pages we investigate the conflict's history
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The Independent Online

I had just crossed the northern bridge from Israel over the Jordan river for a brief visit to Amman when my driver swerved to the right next to a group of soldiers and headed down a track beside a canal. "We have to avoid the first village," he said without comment. A few minutes later, I could see why.

I had just crossed the northern bridge from Israel over the Jordan river for a brief visit to Amman when my driver swerved to the right next to a group of soldiers and headed down a track beside a canal. "We have to avoid the first village," he said without comment. A few minutes later, I could see why.

Black smoke rose from burning tyres on the main road and crowds of young Jordanian men were stopping cars on the highway. "They are throwing stones at foreigners and looking for Israelis," said the driver. You bet they were. And, two hours later, I saw black smoke cowling into the air over Amman as more demonstrators screamed their hatred of America and Israel.

And this, remember, is friendly, pro-Western Jordan, whose young king moves members of the British Parliament to tears, whose peace treaty with Israel was hailed – preposterously, of course – as the start of an economic boom, a new freedom and security for a nation of whom more than half the population are Palestinian.

All across the Arab world, local dictators are suppressing their people's anger. In Jordan, you can even find people who ask not only why the late King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel. Some of them are asking another question: what is the point of his son, King Abdullah? No wonder that the Arab leaders told US Vice-President Dick Cheney last month that he should forget America's forthcoming screen epic in Iraq and deal with the Palestinian-Israeli war. Valuable days were lost while Mr Cheney toured the region in a desperate search for an Arab who would support an Iraqi blitz. And as happens so often nowadays – incredible though it seems – the Arabs got it right while the Americans fantasised about the "axis of evil".

Perhaps the only man who now has time to work out the logic of this appalling conflict is the Palestinian leader sitting in his ill-lit broken office in Ramallah. The one characteristic Yasser Arafat shares with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – apart from old age and decrepitude – is his refusal ever to plan ahead. What he says, what he does, what he proposes, is decided only at the moment he is forced to act. This is partly his old guerrilla training. If you don't know what you are going to do tomorrow, you can be sure that your enemies don't know either. By contrast, the Israeli army obligingly boasts of its attacks long in advance, allowing Palestinians – and, of course, journalists – to be ready for them.

What the world has so far witnessed – and the Palestinians spotted this from the start – is that the Israelis are meeting resistance they never expected. The "few days" they needed to "root out the network of terror" will now have to extend, according to Israeli officers, to a month. President George Bush gave Mr Sharon just days to end his campaign against the Palestinians – the delay before the Secretary of State leaves for his "urgent" Middle East mission – and everyone now knows that the Americans will expect Israel to wrap up its assault by the time Mr Powell arrives later this week.

So the military logic is simple. This weekend, the Israeli army has got to batter the Palestinians into submission. And somehow, the Palestinian forces have got to hang on and keep fighting. If they succeed, and the Israelis withdraw their tanks without subduing them, Mr Sharon is forced into a bitter humiliation. If the Israelis do not withdraw at Mr Powell's demand, then the first serious crack appears in the Sharon-Bush alliance. In which case, Mr Arafat will win yet again.

The Israeli army, meanwhile, is proving once more – as it did in Lebanon – that it is not the "elite" force it's cracked up to be. It is impossible to dismiss the widespread reports of looting from homes in Ramallah (not least because that is exactly what Israeli soldiers used to do in southern Lebanon in 1983); and that brave Israeli academic, Avi Shlaim, has himself charged Israel with extra-judicial killings in Ramallah.

Watching the Israelis in Ramallah and Bethlehem last week was a disturbing experience. They were undisciplined, firing like militiamen – the degree of fire control (or rather the lack of it) exercised by the average Israeli soldier and Palestinian gunman is almost exactly the same. Three times I watched Israeli tanks jam themselves into narrow streets so hopelessly that their crews had to emerge under fire from their hatches, jump on to the roadside and hand-signal the tank drivers to reverse their vehicle.

And of course, the innocent go on dying. The Bethlehem bell-ringer, the woman doctor in Jenin, the 14-year-old girl killed by Israeli tank fire in Tubas, the mother and son shot dead by Israeli bullets and left to rot on the floor of their home in Bethlehem beside their still-living relatives for 30 hours. Journalists and unarmed Western "peace" protesters who get in the Israeli army's way are gunned down or battoned or blasted with stun grenades. So much for those gentle souls who say that Gandhi-like peaceful protest is the way to end the Israeli occupation.

And what does the Israeli government do when the guns and grenades don't shut journalists up? Why, last week it threatened legal action against CNN and the American NBC television chain for not leaving "closed military areas" of the West Bank. No matter that Israeli law possesses no legitimacy in the Palestinian areas it occupies – the world still accepts the Oslo agreements even if Mr Sharon is destroying them – CNN and NBC meekly refused to make any comment. What happened, one wonders, to that great American journalist's principle of refusing to tolerate censorship?

But there is another question which has been quietly forgotten by the world ever since the Israeli assault. If Israel fails militarily – as it will – then how are the vicious Palestinian suicide bombers to be stopped? True, there has been a lull after the massacres of Israelis last month. But even if the suiciders have been temporarily unbalanced by the Israeli offensive, Israel has created many more potential "martyrs" for the Palestinians in the bloodbath of the past week.

The Israelis still refuse to contemplate the arrival of a foreign protection force – the dream of every Palestinian – but the time may come when a Nato-American force will have to be contemplated, to protect Israelis as well as Palestinians. It would not be called a foreign protectorate, but that is what Israel/Palestine would become, an updated version of the old, hopeless British mandate.

In the meantime, be sure the Americans will go on over-arming the Israelis. Just under two weeks ago, for example, the Americans rolled out their first S-70A-55 troop-carrying Black Hawk helicopter to be sold to the Israelis. Israel has purchased 24 of the new machines costing $211m (£150m) – most of which, of course, will be paid for by the United States. The logbook of the first of the new Black Hawks was handed over to the Israeli defence ministry by none other than the former secretary of state, Alexander Haig – the man who gave Israel's then prime minister, Menachem Begin, the green light to invade Lebanon in 1982.

So, coming soon to the Middle East, a new breed of Black Hawk in the skies over your local West Bank town. Funny, though, that we haven't heard a thing about all this.

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