The Palestinians must seize back their pride

This was not a war crime. It was deliberate desecration, signalling that you don't regard your enemy as human
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The Independent Online

One can imagine Ariel Sharon's look as he watches on television the pictures of Yasser Arafat prancing around proclaiming his new freedom. It would be one of pure contempt.

For the past year the central focus of his policy has been to isolate, humiliate and marginalise his old enemy. Now, under American pressure, he has to watch him strengthened by his weeks under siege. If I were a betting man I wouldn't give much odds on the Palestinian leader living much longer, never mind being allowed back if he ever goes abroad.

Short of that, what we will see is a return to the old game of escalating tit for tat as Sharon awaits further acts of bombing so that he can move against Arafat again, while Arafat waits for the counter-measures so he can claim the role of heroic victim. Hamas has already declared its determination to commit new attacks. Ariel Sharon has made clear the primary interests of Israeli security can be achieved only by the total neutering of the Palestinians. The dance of death goes on.

Arafat's release is only one side of the coin. On every other front Sharon has has got his way. Blair, and President Bush, huffed and puffed about immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. And what have they got? Israeli tanks rolling into Tulkarm yesterday, another assassination (or "targeted killing" as the Israelis term it) and dozens more arrests. Operation Defensive Shield goes on with no sign of an early end and the UN's attempts to investigate allegations of massacre at Jenin have been finally disbanded.

Of all the developments of the past few weeks it is the collapse of the Jenin committee of investigation that is the saddest. Not that it would necessarily have found that there had been a massacre. In the sense that there was a "massacre" in the terms of Srebrenica or Rwanda, it remains hard to conceive. But that does not mean, as the Israeli ambassador suggested yesterday, that the Palestinian feeling that there was one is just a piece of propaganda. If you believe them, the ambassador joked on the Today programme, "the Israelis would be responsible for every traffic accident in the West Bank". Ho, ho, ho. He clearly feels the Palestinians are comic people.

Well no, they're not in fact. The rumours of a massacre started when the emails and the mobile phones started buzzing in the hours after the Israeli invasion. Shooting started; civilians were shot at; houses were broken into. Then access was prevented and even the ambulances couldn't go in. All sorts of rumours started to circulate.

In the bitter aftermath of that military assault, there are – as the Human Rights Watch reported yesterday – very real concerns that the Geneva conventions were broken. Civilians, it is said, were used as shields; houses were pounded without warning to the occupants; unarmed civilians were shot crossing the streets; grenades were thrown into rooms full of women and children; ambulances were stopped coming to the aid of the wounded.

Ultimately it is up to Israel itself – and it has a strong civil rights movement within – to investigate these charges and to determine whether the boundaries of reasonable military force were breached. The American did it after My Lai; we British are still at it in the inquiry into Bloody Sunday. There is a greater role for outside intervention, and particularly the Red Cross, in an aspect which has hardly received any attention so far but will emerge in the weeks to come: the treatment of the Palestinians seized as suspected terrorists.

But a UN investigation could have at least sifted the evidence and begun to define the terms for all to see. Was it a massacre? If not, were crimes against civilians perpetrated? The extremists on both sides would have rejected the conclusion. The Israeli government would have shouted foul. But those concerned but uncommitted – and I still think they are the majority – would have had the chance to read and decide for themselves.

An investigation into Jenin would have also done something else even more important, I think. It would have shown that the world cared. Jenin has become a symbol for the Palestinians not just of one incident but a whole process of humiliation and castration by an occupying force. The successive occupations of Palestinian towns have in almost every case been accompanied by a trashing of homes and offices, a humiliation of individuals and a wanton destruction that goes way beyond the stated aim of suppressing the means of terrorism.

The files of the Palestinian Authority's health and education departments were all destroyed. The Culture Centre in Bethlehem was invaded and all its books and material ripped up. The office of a prominent lawyer in Ramallah was taken over as a sniper post and every single bit of office equipment broken and the floors covered with excrement. In Bethlehem, the soldiers broke into a neighbour of a friend, gathered the children's clothes, unzipped their trousers and pissed on them.

This is not massacre. It is not even a war crime. But it is something else – a deliberate desecration, signalling that you don't even regard your enemy as human. Real peace is not possible in the Middle East until the Palestinians are allowed back their pride, or seize it back for themselves by acts of violence. A UN investigation into Jenin might just have gone a little way to recognising this. The folding of the international community before Israeli objections just confirms the worst fears of the Palestinians about their plight.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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