Exaggeration always gets my goat. I started to hate it back in the 1970s when the Provisional IRA claimed that Long Kesh internment camp was "worse than Belsen". It wasn't as if there was anything nice about Long Kesh – or the Maze prison as it was later politely dubbed – but it simply wasn't as bad as Belsen. And now we're off again. Passing through Paris this week, I found pro-Palestinian demonstrators carrying signs which read "Gaza, it's Guernica" and "Gaza-sur-Glane".
Guernica, as we all know, was the Basque city razed by the Luftwaffe in 1937 and Oradour-sur-Glane the French village whose occupants were murdered by the SS in 1944. Israel's savagery in Gaza has also been compared to a "genocide" and – of course – a "holocaust". The French Union of Islamic Organisations called it "a genocide without precedent" – which does take the biscuit when even the Pope's "minister for peace and justice" has compared Gaza to "a big concentration camp".
Before I state the obvious, I only wish the French Union of Islamic Organisations would call the Armenian genocide a genocide – it doesn't have the courage to do so, does it, because that would be offensive to the Turks and, well, the million and a half Armenians massacred in 1915 happened to be, er, Christians.
Mind you, that didn't stop George Bush from dropping the word from his vocabulary lest he, too, should offend the Turkish generals whose airbases America needs for its continuing campaign in Iraq. And even Israel doesn't use the word "genocide" about the Armenians lest it loses its only Muslim ally in the Middle East. Strange, isn't it? When there's a real genocide – of Armenians – we don't like to use the word. But when there is no genocide, everyone wants to get in on the act.
Yes, I know what all these people are trying to do: make a direct connection between Israel and Hitler's Germany. And in several radio interviews this past week, I've heard a good deal of condemnation about such comparisons. How do Holocaust survivors in Israel feel about being called Nazis? How can anyone compare the Israeli army to the Wehrmacht? Merely to make such a parallel is an act of anti-Semitism.
Having come under fire from the Israeli army on many occasions, I'm not sure that's necessarily true. I've never understood why strafing the roads of northern France in 1940 was a war crime while strafing the roads of southern Lebanon is not a war crime. The massacre of up to 1,700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila camps – perpetrated by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies while Israeli soldiers watched and did nothing – falls pretty much into the Second World War bracket. Israel's own estimate of the dead – a paltry 460 – was only nine fewer than the Nazi massacre at the Czech village of Lidice in 1942 when almost 300 women and children were also sent to Ravensbrück (a real concentration camp). Lidice was destroyed in revenge for the murder by Allied agents of Reinhard Heydrich. The Palestinians were slaughtered after Ariel Sharon told the world – untruthfully – that a Palestinian had murdered the Lebanese Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel.
Indeed, it was the courageous Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz of the Hebrew University (and editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica) who wrote that the Sabra and Chatila massacre "was done by us. The Phalangists are our mercenaries, exactly as the Ukrainians and the Croatians and the Slovakians were the mercenaries of Hitler, who organised them as soldiers to do the work for him. Even so have we organised the assassins of Lebanon in order to murder the Palestinians". Remarks like these were greeted by Israel's then minister of interior and religious affairs, Yosef Burg, with the imperishable words: "Christians killed Muslims – how are the Jews guilty?"
I have long raged against any comparisons with the Second World War – whether of the Arafat-is-Hitler variety once deployed by Menachem Begin or of the anti-war-demonstrators-are-1930s-appeasers, most recently used by George Bush and Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. And pro-Palestinian marchers should think twice before they start waffling about genocide when the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem once shook Hitler's hand and said – in Berlin on 2 November 1943, to be precise – "The Germans know how to get rid of the Jews... They have definitely solved the Jewish problem." The Grand Mufti, it need hardly be added, was a Palestinian. He lies today in a shabby grave about two miles from my Beirut home.
No, the real reason why "Gaza-Genocide" is a dangerous parallel is because it is not true. Gaza's one and a half million refugees are treated outrageously enough, but they are not being herded into gas chambers or forced on death marches. That the Israeli army is a rabble is not in question – though I was amused to read one of Newsweek's regular correspondents calling it "splendid" last week – but that does not mean they are all war criminals. The issue, surely, is that war crimes do appear to have been committed in Gaza. Firing at UN schools is a criminal act. It breaks every International Red Cross protocol. There is no excuse for the killing of so many women and children.
I should add that I had a sneaking sympathy for the Syrian foreign minister who this week asked why a whole international tribunal has been set up in the Hague to investigate the murder of one man – Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri – while no such tribunal is set up to investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians.
I should add, however, that the Hague tribunal may well be pointing the finger at Syria and I would still like to see a tribunal set up into the Syrian massacre at Hama in 1982 when thousands of civilians were shot at the hands of Rifaat al-Assad's special forces. The aforesaid Rifaat, I should add, today lives safely within the European Union. And how about a trial for the Israeli artillerymen who massacred 106 civilians – more than half of them children – at the UN base at Qana in 1996?
What this is really about is international law. It's about accountability. It's about justice – something the Palestinians have never received – and it's about bringing criminals to trial. Arab war criminals, Israeli war criminals – the whole lot. And don't say it cannot be done. Wasn't that the message behind the Yugoslav tribunal? Didn't some of the murderers get their just deserts? Just leave the Second World War out of it.