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This will be the week when we see who runs the US-Israeli alliance


So what’s the surprise? Suddenly Israel doesn’t want to take our advice. Ex-general Ariel Sharon prefers to go on wrecking the Palestinian Authority, tearing up the Oslo agreement in the name of his Holy War on terror. Why should he worry about the scandalous number of civilian casualties among the Palestinians? After all, didn’t America wreak its own revenge – killing thousands of innocent civilians in one of the poorest countries on Earth – after the crimes against humanity of 11 September? I must admit, though, to a grim satisfaction when I heard President George Bush’s puzzled, uncomprehending response to Mr Sharon’s refusal to withdraw his army from the West Bank.

The Israeli Prime Minister is, after all, the man who sent his army into Lebanon in 1982 to “root out Palestinian terror” – note the identical rhetoric, as well as the same cast of characters – and whose “elite” Israeli forces killed up to 17,500 people, almost all civilians. Mr Sharon is the man who then sent Israel’s vicious Phalangist allies into the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, after which they massacred 1,700 Palestinian civilians. For this he was held “personally responsible” by Israel’s own commission of inquiry. Evidence now emerging in Beirut suggests that most of the slaughtered refugees were actually killed in the two weeks following the original massacre – after the survivors had been handed back to the Phalange by Israel’s own soldiers

So why should Mr Sharon stop now? If Mr Bush wants to rein in his reckless ally, why doesn’t he ask Mr Sharon a few questions? Why doesn’t he ask what has happened to the more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners who have disappeared into Israel’s hands over the past two weeks? What happened, for example, to the five men, blindfolded and trussed up like chickens whom I discovered in the Jewish settlement of Psagot? What happened to the masses of young men I saw being taken in a bus with its windows wired over, a bus that made its way around Jerusalem and headed west on the Tel Aviv highway. How many of these young men are now being tortured either in interrogation centres or in the Russian Compound, the main torture compound in West Jerusalem?

But since Mr Bush’s soldiers are experts in blindfolding and gagging Muslim prisoners – and putting them in front of drumhead military courts – why should Mr Sharon worry? For month after month, as Mr Sharon tore up the Oslo agreement, put the building of Jewish colonies on Arab land into overdrive and sent out his death squads to murder Palestinians, the Bush administration – fearful of offending the Israelis – allowed him to do what he wanted. In response to the wicked Palestinian suicide bombings, Bush expressed outrage. In response to Israel’s aggression, he called for restraint – and then did nothing.

Again, what’s the surprise? For months the American media has refused to tell its viewers and readers what is going on in the occupied territories. Its newspapers have indulged the insanity of writers who have been encouraging Mr Sharon into ever-more-savage acts. What are we supposed to make – for example, of a recent article in The New York Times by William Safire, referring – as usual – to Jewish civilians murdered by Palestinians but to Arab civilians “caught in the crossfire”, “crossfire” being the nearest many journalists will dare to go in saying that the culprits were Israeli.

Safire plays the old game of talking about the occupied territories as “disputed” rather than occupied, a grotesque distortion of the truth upon which the State Department insisted in a policy paper sent out by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

But Safire adds a new threat to journalists who might wish to tell the truth: “These are disputed territories” he writes, “to call them ‘occupied’ reveals a prejudice against Israel’s right to what were supposed to be ‘secure and defensible’ borders.” You can see the way the argument is going. If we have a ‘prejudice’ against Israel’s rights, it’s only a short step to call us anti-Semitic. But what is one to make of this nonsense? Am I supposed to pretend that the soldiers who blocked my car and pointed their guns at me in the West Bank last week were Swiss? Am I to believe that the rabble of soldiers shouting at Palestinian women desperate to leave Ramallah were Burmese?

Safire regularly takes phone calls from Mr Sharon (and then insists on telling us of Mr Sharon’s latest fantasies), but my old chum Tom Friedman in his ever-more-Messianic column in The New York Times, has almost gone one better. “Israel needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay,” he announced last week. What, in God’s name, is an American journalist doing when he urges Mr Sharon to go to war? Friedman was with me in the Sabra and Chatila camps. Has he forgotten what we saw? Last week, however, Friedman was also amiably advising the Palestinians to turn to non-violent resistance à la Gandhi.

For Friedman, “a non-violent Palestinian movement appealing to the conscience of the Israeli silent majority would have delivered a Palestinian state 30 years ago…” Needless to say, when Westerners, including two Britons, protested peacefully in Bethlehem – and were wounded by an Israeli soldier who shot at them, Friedman was silent.

The reason why the Palestinians turned to suicide bombing, according to Friedman, was not despair over the occupation – occupation which, of course, Safire tells us we mustn’t refer to – but because “the Palestinians are so blinded by narcissistic rage” that they have lost sight of the sacredness of human life.

And so it goes on. Having bestialised the Palestinians over so many years, why should we be surprised when a society eventually produces the very monsters we always claim to see in them? Even Mr Bush’s speech last week in which he dispatched Mr Powell on his “urgent” mission of peace – allowing him a lazy seven days to reach Israel, reserved its venom for the Palestinians. And yet, after all that, he fails to see why Mr Sharon might choose to keep his army in the field.

So this week will be a crucial one in the American-Israeli relationship, a real test of the Bush presidency. We shall find out who – the US or Israel – runs America’s policy in the Middle East. It would be nice to think that it was the former. But I’m not sure.

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