Robert Fisk: The Middle East never tires of threats

Governments love warnings, hence the endless waffle about the 'war on terror'

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What is it about threats? What possesses half the Middle East to shout abuse all the time? First we have Ahmadinejad, one of the most crackpot presidents in the world, raving away about annihilating Israel. Then we have Shaul Mofaz, the deputy Israeli Prime Minister, telling the world that there would have to be attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Mofaz was maybe trying to walk tall beside the increasingly powerless Ehud Olmert, or maybe he was just trying to make up for having been a spectacularly unsuccessful chief of staff in his previous incarnation. But why do we have to listen to all this? In fact, why must we take it seriously at all? "Israel warns" has become one of the great clichés of our journalism – along, of course, with "Arabs threaten".

But here we go again, Mofaz talks up war and up again goes the price of oil. It's not that long ago – 2006, to be precise – when we had another Israeli chief of staff, Dan Halutz, warning that he would destroy 10-storey buildings in Beirut's southern suburbs for every rocket fired at Haifa – quite a threat, except that Danny Boy's lads had already destroyed all the 10-storey buildings in the Beirut suburbs.

And it was only 26 years ago, I recall, that Menachem Begin, then the Israeli prime minister, announced that he was going to "root out the evil weed of terror" from Lebanon.

One night, sitting by the empty pool of the Commodore Hotel, I listened on my transistor – yes, those were the days, weren't they – as a newsreader announced that Yasser Arafat was metaphorically promising to chop off Mr Begin's left arm. Within hours, Begin was rabbiting away about chopping off part of Mr Arafat's anatomy. I laughed so much I could have fallen into the empty pool.

And where, pray, today is the "evil weed of terror"? Well, according to the Bush boys, it's now all over south-west Asia, in Gaza, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Lebanon. So much for the "evil weed", which seems to have grown deeper roots than the late Mr Begin thought. Besieging west Beirut in 1982, the Israelis warned that every civilian should leave the city if he or she valued the lives of their families. I've still got the little air-dropped threats which said this (admittedly in execrable Arabic). But most Beirutis just ignored it.

Then the Israelis warned that journalists were going to be kidnapped during the siege if they did not leave west Beirut – another good try to cut down on our reporting. But we ignored the threats and stayed and were not kidnapped, but we were there to record the war crimes of Sabra and Chatila on 18 September 1982.

The Arabs used to have quite a monopoly on threats. I remember one spring day in 1978 when a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine general command (itself a preposterous title) stormed up to me after an Israeli raid in southern Lebanon. He shook his hand at the sky. "We shall stand in the last ditch against the Zionist death wagon," he roared. The what, I asked? The what? Well, I bet he had them shaking in their boots in Tel Aviv with that one. Anyway, back came the planes and the last I saw of this preposterous warrior, he was hurling himself into a very real ditch to avoid the death wagon.

The problem about threats, of course, is that once you've made them, you've either got to carry them out or pretend you were misunderstood. I never believed George Bush would invade Iraq; not, that is, until I turned up at UN headquarters in New York and actually heard him ranting on about the powerlessness of the UN. And then he actually did invade Iraq. And I still have my notes of an interview with a certain Osama bin Laden, and his last words to me were: "I pray that God permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself." And I wrote in the margin the one word "rhetoric?". September 11 cleared that one up.

I fear very much that we indulge ourselves in threats. Newspapers love threats – or warnings – because they ramp up the fear factor. And governments love threats. Hence all those orange alerts and purple warnings and endless waffle from the Ministry of Fear about the "terrorist" threat lasting a lifetime, a generation or – this was Bush, I seem to remember – that the "war on terror" might have to go on for ever. For ever? Even the Thousand Year Reich wasn't supposed to go on for that long.

But there was one dark soul who did use threats to induce fear more frequently than anyone else. Yes, I am talking about Hitler, who would scream and rage at nations and empires and generals and – by and large, between 1933 and autumn 1939 – he pretty much got what he wanted.

That, I suspect, is why we all still fear threats so much. Because Hitler had a habit of carrying out his threats, and all across the dark continent, men shook with fear that he would smash them – and he did. The entire Gestapo was threat – which was why Churchill always pronounced it as "the Nazi Jest-a-po" in an attempt to take its fear quotient away, even as he was talking of Europe under the Germans' "cruel heel".

And when Ahmadinejad talks of annihilating Israel, he cowers, of course, under the shadow of Hitler. And he intends, I think, to make us fear him – although no Iranian military force would let him get his hands on anything nuclear. "Annihilating" Israel – always supposing anyone would truly contemplate it – also means annihilating the West Bank and Gaza and much of Lebanon and Jordan and probably the whole Middle East.

But Hitler is dead and we need to escape from the world of threats. Was it not King Lear who once shouted: "I shall do such things, what they are yet I know not – but they shall be the terrors of the earth." Poor old Lear.

Robert Fisk's 'The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings', a selection of his Saturday columns in 'The Independent', is published by Fourth Estate

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