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THE TRUTH MAY SET THEM FREE
11/08/2001: Robert Fisk argues that there are two versions of events in the Middle East - the real one and the one the West has been sold. If this is the case, how can its people ever hope for peace?

Since the Camp David talks collapsed last year, the story of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been written by the Israelis, with help from the Americans. The narrative has been packaged, sold and largely consumed. It goes like this. Yassir Arafat, the reformed "terrorist", was offered almost everything he wanted from the Israelis - "massive, unbelievable concessions", they told the media - but he chose to return to a life of violence and "terror".

No sooner did the "intifada" start than Arafat proved he could no longer "control" his own people. He then shamelessly allowed parents to send their own children "into the firing line" where they were duly shot down by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones. After repeated pleas for a ceasefire by Ariel Sharon, Arafat allowed his suicide bombers to attack Israeli civilians. All Israel wanted was peace. All Arafat wanted was Israel, all of it, renamed Palestine and led by - Yassir Arafat.

The story is a fraud. But the world largely believed it. As Palestinians were shot down in ever greater numbers - Israeli casualties never reached 25 per cent of their opponents - Madeleine Albright announced that Israel was "under siege". No one questioned her assertion. Bill Clinton went on Israeli television - of all places - to state that the failure of the Camp David talks was Arafat's fault.

Again, nobody disputed this. And as the Israeli-Palestinian war grew more terrible - as Palestinian stones turned into Kalashnikovs and Israeli bullets turned into tank shells and helicopter-fired missiles - the Israelis played their usual role of good guys, only waiting for a genuine ceasefire so they could get down to more peace negotiations.

The reality was quite different and even today, as the first anniversary of the intifada draws nearer, the world has yet to realise that the conflict on the West Bank and Gaza and in Israel is both a civil war and an anti-colonial war; civil because two semitic peoples are fighting over the land, anti-colonial because Palestinians are now fighting an occupation which includes the construction of massive territorial colonies on their land. Indeed, there is about this war now both a touch of Lebanon and a strong whiff of pre-independence Algeria.

The Lebanese war led a society to disintegration while the Algerian war led to the final French retreat from empire. The 1954-62 Algerian war began as a nuisance - trees were cut down to block roads, railways were sabotaged, Algerian crowds hurled stones at French troops - and ended in a bloodbath of bombs and village massacres. There was plenty of torture, too, personally conducted by senior French officers. And plenty of drumhead executions of Algerians by Algerians.

So, too, the "intifada" has descended into anarchy. From stone-throwing to suicide bombing, from snipers to bomber pilots, Palestinians are routinely tortured by Israeli officers in the Russian Compound interrogation centre in Jerusalem. Palestinians are regularly - and publicly - shot for collaboration. Can it get any worse? The answer, of course, is that it will almost certainly get much worse. But could it have been avoided?

When US Secretary of State James Baker invited Arabs and Israelis to talk peace in Madrid in 1991, he insisted that all negotiations would be based upon UN Security Council Resolution 242 - which called for an Israeli withdrawal from the territory it occupied in the 1967 Middle East Six Day War in return for the security of all states (including Israel) in the area. It also - and crucially - reaffirmed that land could not be acquired through armed conquest. The Israelis did not want to attend Madrid - the then prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was to admit later that he did his best to delay the talks - and the Arabs were suspicious.

President Hafez Assad of Syria was cautious enough to demand from Baker a signed letter, stating explicitly that any peace would be founded on 242. Baker sent the letter. The Israelis stuck to their own odd interpretation of 242: that because it did not specifically demand an Israeli withdrawal from "all" land occupied in 1967, it did not have to make a total retreat. The framers of the UN resolution would have been stunned by such exclusive verbal antics. But exclusivity has always been a part of the Middle East conflict.

Two years later, however, Arafat produced a secret deal with the Israelis. Why the Israelis should have trusted the corrupt Old Palestinian con-man was a puzzle for many, although - given the terms of the Oslo agreement - it was easy to see why Israel was prepared to deal with the PLO. For Oslo - almost universally praised and given a Hollywood overture on the White House lawn - allowed the Israelis to, in effect, renegotiate UN Resolution 242.

Instead of abiding by the resolution and withdrawing its military forces from the land it captured in 1967, Israel was able to argue for years about which bits of the land it was prepared to return and which bits it intended to keep. All the most contentious issues - the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees - were to be left to the end. It was like a honeymoon before the marriage. So much trust - so much love - would be engendered in the years after Oslo that the really important points of difference would be rendered meaningless. Or so we were supposed to believe.

But in the years that followed, the building of Jewish settlements on occupied land continued; in fact, they increased in size. More Palestinians were dispossessed. And the Israelis repeated, again and again, that Jerusalem would remain their "eternal and undivided capital". Thus by the summer of last year, the Palestinians no longer trusted either the Israelis or the Americans, whose role as a neutral broker was so hopelessly at odds with their strategic alliance with Israel.

Arafat turned up at Camp David to discover that he would not have a capital in east Jerusalem, that Jewish settlements would largely remain, that the "right of return" - enshrined for the Palestinians in a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution - would be ignored. He would have some "control" over certain Jerusalem streets but no sovereignty. The Palestinians would control the Haram al-Sharif mosque but not the land beneath, which - a lovely touch, this - would belong to the Israelis because this was where the Jewish Temple Mount once stood.

Incredibly, the world was told, and believed, that Arafat had been offered 92 per cent or 94 per cent or - there was no stopping this extraordinary burst of false generosity - 96 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza. But excluded from this was east Jerusalem (which was already illegally annexed by Israel) and the massive new Israeli municipality lands around it. Also excluded were settlements that would have to be leased back to Israel for 25 years. Also excluded was a 10-mile-wide buffer zone around Palestinian territory. Included - another lovely touch - were some Palestinian "territorial waters" on the Dead Sea; good for tourism, perhaps, but not much use for building homes. In all, Arafat was being offered about 46 per cent of the 22 per cent of the original Palestine. Of course, he turned it down.

Back in 1993, I read carefully through the Oslo agreement, visited the West Bank and Gaza, and concluded that Oslo was "Arafat's road to ruin". I have never been so sorry to have been right. Those of us who argued that the Palestinians were being bamboozled into giving up their rights for a peace agreement that did not produce a Palestinian nation were, of course, attacked as "enemies of peace".

I still have my hate mail from 1993, accusing me of race hatred, anti-semitism and lies. The most prominent of my "lies" was the contention that Oslo would end in tears, that an explosion would tear apart the West Bank and Gaza, and set Palestinians and Israelis at each other's throats. Instead, the world lived on under a cloak of illusions. There was a "peace process" - I think the US State Department dreamed up this expression but the media adopted it at once - which was constantly being put "back on track".

Again, journalists happily used the cliché. The State Department mendaciously told its diplomats that they were no longer to refer to the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied" - even though that was what much of the Palestinian land was. Henceforth, US ambassadors were to call the lands "disputed" - as if there was a legal dispute about property ownership.

CNN went along with this rubric within one week, made manifest in a report which stated that Palestinians and Israelis were divided by competing "heritage claims". The Palestinian heritage, the report failed to point out, was based on land deeds; the Israeli "heritage", of course, was based on the notion that God had decided long ago - land deeds notwithstanding - that the land belonged to the Jews and the Jews only.

But let us not be romantic about the Palestinians. Dispossessed, occupied, brutalised, tortured, imprisoned without trial, demonised, they were the victims. But they produced a leadership that was as corrupt as any other Arab regime, as motivated to torture as any dictatorship, as prone to censorship as any frightened caliphate. Arafat ran - and still runs - 13 different security outfits.

That most of them were trained by the CIA and that most Palestinian torture was designed to suppress the "enemies of peace" who opposed the Oslo agreement does not redeem Arafat. In his six-year tenure as sultan of West Beirut - a preposterous rule which I experienced at first hand - he had shamelessly created martyrs.

At the Tel el-Zaatar camp in 1976, he repeatedly called for ceasefires which his own Fatah officers would then break. When the Christian Lebanese militias finally lost patience and massacred the men of the camp, Arafat proclaimed them as martyrs. This is why their families later hurled rotten fruit and stones at Arafat when he visited them in the Christian village of Damour, which Palestinians themselves had earlier destroyed.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Arafat needed a few more martyrs once the intifada began. It is equally easy to understand why he could rely on the Israelis. Far from being the elite, super-disciplined, morally aware army of song and legend, the Israel Defence Forces often operate as a militia, gunning down stone-throwing schoolchildren, shooting at journalists and now - under mild reproof from the White House - cheerfully claiming responsibility for the work of their death squads.

Equally impressive has been the response of the media. Israel's own euphemism for its state-sponsored murders -"targeted attacks" -is now regularly used by American newspapers and even by the BBC. But Arafat judged the Israelis correctly. He believed they would react with brutality, and they obliged. The killing of 14 civil rights demonstrators by British soldiers in Derry could bring down the Stormont government, provoke direct rule and heap the world's condemnation upon Britain. Yet the killing of 14 Palestinians in a day is regarded as a kind of normality, at most eliciting my favourite US State Department response: to call upon "both sides" to "exercise restraint".

Restraint, however, is water in the desert in the occupied territories. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are dedicated to their own super-weapon, the theological version of the nuclear weapons which the Israelis possess: the suicide bomber. Callous, wicked - the taking of innocent young life may have reasons but no moral excuses - the suicide bomber began to invade the nightmares of every Israeli. Few if any chose to recall that Israel itself helped to create Hamas - just as its cruelty in Lebanon created the Hizballah - when it wished to deconstruct the PLO. For back in the 1980s, it seemed a clever idea to nurture a Palestinian Islamist movement which might detract from the power of the PLO.

The Israelis encouraged Hamas to build mosques and undertake social work, they held secret talks with Hamas leaders. They turned a blind eye when Hamas murdered PLO "collaborators". I well recall chatting to one of the Hamas men expelled to Lebanon in the early 1990s. In the middle of a conversation, he suddenly offered me Shimon Peres's home telephone number. How on earth did he come to have it, I innocently asked. Because, the Hamas man replied, Hamas regularly talked to Israeli leaders.

But it is too easy to be cynical. Palestinians are not dying because they like death or because they believe - in a real slander which has appeared in many British newspapers - in the idea of "child sacrifice". They are throwing stones and burning tyres and shooting because they are occupied, dispossessed and under siege - a real siege that deprives them of money, food, water, hope.

More and more people are coming to realise this and to be profoundly distressed at the grossly disproportionate violence which Israel is visiting upon the Palestinians. And Israelis themselves - those that are not dupes of the "security" prime minister, Ariel Sharon - are asking why their country behaves as it does to the people who, eventually, must be their neighbours. Which is one reason why the Israeli press - and Israeli journalists - often provide a much more realistic, less frightened account of events than British or American reporters.

Any such reflections earn the routine contempt of Israel's diplomats, who respond - as they may well do to this article - by talking of Israel's war against "terror", its struggle against "international terrorism", its need to liquidate "the sources of terror", its simple desire for peace. But they will not mention Jewish settlements illegally built on another's land, or a Jerusalem that can never - even a few mean streets of it - be a Palestinian capital as well as a Jewish capital.

And all the while, the man chosen to struggle with the "super-terrorist" Arafat is the same man whose name is indelibly stained with the slaughter of up to 2,000 civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila 19 years ago. The Palestinians deserve better. So do the Israelis. And one day, maybe we'll hear the truth.

Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent
for the London Independent






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