Bush’s “war on terror” has provided cover for Sharon’s brand of state terror.
As we drove through Ramallah I will never forget how he changed. Jamal, our interpreter. A lean, bookish, quietly spoken man. He stood at the back of the public gallery in the Palestinian Legislative Council
and whispered in my ear: the Parliament is debating whether to adjourn the special sitting in order to reconvene at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
It’s 10.30am on Thursday September 28 2000: about two hours after Ariel Sharon had marched to the mosque with around 2 000 supporters and soldiers. As Jamal translated, I began to understand the enormity of Sharon’s action; that he had deliberately thrown a light upon the dry tinder of the seven years of frustration that had followed the Oslo Accord of 1993.
Frustration, that is, for the Palestinian people, who had been led to believe by their leader Yasser Arafat and by the United States that a contiguous, viable Palestinian state would soon follow to replace the Bantustan, economic unviability of Oslo.
Instead, more Jewish settlements had been built (about 200 000 more settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Instead, the Israelis had dragged their feet on the core issues: the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948; the removal of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land; and, of course, Jerusalem.
They are frustrated, also, by the failure of the Israelis and the Americans to negotiate fairly at the Camp David meetings of July 2000. This is Myth Number One with which the Israeli propaganda machine has so expertly deceived the world: that Arafat missed his chance; and that then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered a fair deal when his offer did not deal with core questions such as removal of Jewish settlements or the return of the refugees.
But back to Jamal. The intifada began the day after my first meeting with him, the day the Israelis murdered eight Palestinians as they protested after Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque. And so the current intifada commenced.
Four days later and 47 more Palestinians had been shot dead by the Israeli army. Those I saw being shot were simply throwing rocks towards the armoured Israeli vehicles. But, as Israel’s own press soon exposed, Barak had ordered a “shoot to kill” policy.
I admit that Ramallah had surprised me with modernity, reflected in the bright whiteness of many of the buildings and offices. The people we met, progressive lawyers and professionals, spoke with pride of how Ramallah stood for something new: Arab governance with a respect for the rule of law and human rights.
As we drove to a meeting a week later Jamal began to explain how the previous evening helicopter gunships had flown over the city. There had been some exchanges of fire. Israeli armoured vehicles had been seen near the main street in the dead of night. Jamal’s measured pace quickened as he spoke. The car fell silent as his tone shifted. “If they dare come in here, into our city, they must understand what that means. We will fight. I will fight, to the death and with my bare hands if necessary. That is what it means.”
I will never forget how this gentle, highly educated man became so fierce. I fear for him now, because I have no doubt that he meant what he said.
We know now that the vision represented by Ramallah has been destroyed these past two weeks. The roads have been torn up by Israeli tanks; for long periods access to the hospital was denied and supplies blocked; many government buildings have been destroyed, a fact that helps penetrate another myth: that this invasion is about “rooting out terrorist cells”. When the Israelis occupied the Palestinian TV stations they played pornographic tapes over the airwaves for four days.
That this Israeli army should behave in such a barbarian fashion is hardly surprising. It is led by a barbarian: Sharon. This is the man who sent his army into Lebanon when he was its commander-in-chief in 1982 to “root out terror”. What that meant then, and what it means now, is a licence to massacre. His army murdered up to 17 500 people, mainly civilians then. Who knows how many in Jenin and the other West Bank cities this time? He was held “personally responsible” by Israel’s own commission of inquiry into the massacre of about 1 700 Palestinian civilians by vicious Phalangist allies.
On what possible basis did United States President George W Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair think this murderous leopard would change his spots once elected Israeli prime minister?
This is not a man who wants to negotiate. He is a man of war. He is a racist who wants to drive the Palestinians into the sea through “ethnic cleansing”. Bush’s “war on terror” has provided the cover for Sharon’s own brand of state terror. Now Bush must take responsibility for the many deaths that have arisen for the folly of letting Sharon off the leash.
In the 1980s the British Labour Party stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the African National Congress in its struggle for freedom, arguing for sanctions against Pretoria. How things have changed!
Now, apparently, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel. Last week British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that Israel deserved greater sympathy rather than the condemnation that was growing slowly but surely in continental Europe.
While Blair bleats about President Thabo Mbeki’s failure to speak out clearly against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe he pursues his own “quiet diplomacy” in the case of Sharon. When the future of a handful of white farmers is at stake tough action and tough sanctions must be applied; in the case of four million Palestinians, appeasement of the oppressor is permissible.
That a Labour government in Britain should fail to take a stand against the atrocity and illegality of the Israeli military campaign means only one thing for me: that Blair is unfit to lead the Labour Party and unfit to be a Labour prime minister. It is a betrayal of the great traditions of democracy and freedom of the Labour Party.
Israel is a pariah nation that simply ignores United Nations resolutions such as Resolution 1402 of March 30 calling on it to withdraw from Palestinian cities. It should be treated just as the apartheid regime of South Africa was.
Speaking to the BBC’s Jeremy Vine who is reporting from Palestine, he reminded me of WH Auden’s words in The Watershed: “This land, cut off, will not communicate.” For Vine the quotation captures the chasm that divides Jews and Arabs in Palestine/Israel. In fact, Palestine does now communicate, despite the Israelis’ attempts to hide their work: for this is the first great struggle for liberation and justice of the 21st century, binding a new international democracy movement.
The test for the great powers of America and Europe is whether they have the democratic instinct to respond to this growing social movement and to stand on the side of justice for the Palestinians, or whether they are really blind to what the opposite will betroth the world. That is more 11th of Septembers and more suicide bombings.
Finally, let us now be honest. Who on the left did not feel a sense of Schadenfreude at the sight of the World Trade Centre towers crashing to the ground? It is the same instinct that now leads us to quietly celebrate the news of an Israeli casualty. In the end, oppression and its appeasement can bring out the “terrorist” in all of us. This is Shakesperean revenge tragedy in which, as in Hamlet, we all die ? either literally or figuratively in the soul. Until America and Europe begin to understand this fact and act upon it, there can be no just peace in the Middle East and no New World Order.
Archive: Previous columns by Richard Calland