I saw a headline in an Israeli newspaper last week - a shooting - and recognised a name, a photograph, a face. For a moment, I was back again in Gaza last summer, in the strangest house I have ever visited. It felt as though I had wandered into a Kafka short story, where everything is a warped metaphor for Palestine itself.
It was an occupied house. The Israeli army had seized the top two floors of Khalil Bashir's home. The house overlooks one of the Israeli settlements built illegally on the Gaza Strip, so for 18 months the army had declared the bedrooms and bathroom of the Bashir house to be a "closed military zone". Every day the soldiers change shift by climbing a ladder at the back of the house. As you sit in his front room you can hear them walking about upstairs.
"I know," Khalil Bashir says politely, "it is like a bad television comedy. But this is true. They are there." Bashir, his wife and his eight children now all have to sleep in a tiny room on the ground floor. It has no beds. They are under a strict curfew. After sundown they cannot leave this room. They have been told that if they do they will be shot.
This is not the home of a Hamas activist, a man secretly plotting the murder of Jewish children. Khalil is the local headmaster, and he led the area's Jewish-Arab dialogue group until the intifada made it impossible for them to continue. "The settlers know that we are civilians and good neighbours. We would never let any militant use our house for an attack, ever," Khalil explains. As chickens cluck at our feet, he continues in his warm, soft voice: "They will never succeed in making me hate them. We are better than that. To hate is inhuman. In spite of everything, I love them and reach out the hand of peace. We are destined to live together. Nobody will expel anybody else. We are all children of Abraham."
Looking back, there were harbingers of the event that pushed Khalil Bashir into the headlines. Two years ago, while he was marking his school papers, a missile crashed into his study and brought the ceiling crashing down on his head. He was hospitalised with serious head injuries. "Yes, death has knocked on our door more than once," Khalil explains, "but we refuse to leave simply because we love our house."
Last week, a United Nations delegation arrived to visit the Bashirs. As Khalil's 14-year-old son Yousef - a sweet boy who served me coffee and talked about his school work - led the UN delegates back to their car from the house he was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier. His spinal artery was cut immediately. The bullet was one millimetre away from his spinal cord. Thanks to that, he will live.
"God's protection was more powerful than the hatred of the bullets, for it prevented death from taking Yousef," Khalil says now. He issued an immediate appeal for no Palestinians to retaliate in any way. "We are all human," he says, "and I pray I am the last father on either side who suffers, and Yousef will be the last son who gets hurt."
Yousef's story is not unusual. All Palestinians throughout Gaza and the West Bank live with lock-downs and curfews, and in the midst of violent settlers who have stolen Palestinian land. Perhaps the most horrible truth is that Yousef took a bullet that was enforcing an occupation that even Ariel Sharon agrees cannot continue.
The Likud Prime Minister said last month: "I am working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza ... It is my intention to carry out an evacuation - sorry, a relocation - of settlements that cause us problems and of places we will not hold on to anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements."
At the moment just 7,500 settlers occupy a quarter of Gaza, while more than 1 million Palestinians are shunted on to the rest. Even if you didn't care at all about Palestinian suffering, Israel itself cannot survive if it continues like this. Soon there will be an Arab majority in the combined territory of Israel and the occupied territories. Unless the land is divided into two before then, Israel will officially become an apartheid state, with a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority on the basis of racial or cultural superiority. Israel would become untenable not only in the eyes of the world but also in the eyes of many of its own citizens.
Sharon seems to understand this, and sees - very reluctantly - the need to leave Gaza (although not the West Bank, which will be essential for a viable Palestinian state). Nobody should mistake this for a Damascene transformation into benevolence, and we must remember he has a long history of telling blatant lies. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father, said that Sharon "would be a good general if he learned to tell the truth". Sharon lied Israel into the catastrophic Lebanon war, saying it would be a very limited military operation to create a security buffer, when he always knew it would be a protracted battle lasting for over a decade. Sharon claims he is committed to the US road map which explicitly forbids new settlements on the territories, but Israel's central bureau of statistics disclosed yesterday that construction had begun on 1,850 new houses in the last year.
Yesterday, after his meeting in London with Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the Israeli Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom, seemed to be equivocating - on behalf of Sharon - about whether there would even be a full withdrawal after all. This is now, it seems, only "one of four options" being considered.
We know for sure that Sharon is not interested in a negotiated peace. Last summer he had the best possible Palestinian interlocutor in Abu Mazen, the moderate Palestinian Prime Minister. Talking with Abu Mazen - and giving him some concrete achievements to show to ordinary Palestinians - would have demonstrated to the average Palestinian that the route to peace was to choose non-extremist leaders who believe in dialogue rather than bullets. Sharon did the opposite: he deliberately humiliated and destroyed Abu Mazen, so that he resigned.
By unilaterally withdrawing without any negotiation now, Sharon will force Palestinians to conclude that the way to get concessions from Israel is not through reason but through murdering so many Israelis that occupation becomes unbearable. Yet again, Sharon's pig-headedness has endangered Israeli citizens, never mind my Palestinian friends. And now we are forced to ask whether he even believes in a full withdrawal from Gaza.
"I will never lose my optimism," Khalil said the last time I saw him. "There are people on both sides who want peace. The real battle is not between Israel and Palestine but between those who want to co-exist and those who dream of expelling or killing the other side."
As he spoke, there was a scraping noise from the ceiling above. "Ah," he said, without looking up, "they are moving around the furniture. They took a table from downstairs while we were asleep. I guess they are making it fit into the room." Khalil shrugged: "We will have peace one day." I wish I could agree with you, Khalil. I wish.Reuse content