Despite Israel’s effort to restrict coverage of its destructive invasion of the West Bank’s Palestinian towns and refugee camps, information and images have nevertheless seeped through. The Internet has provided hundreds of verbal as well as pictorial eyewitness reports, as have Arab and European TV coverage, most of it unavailable or blocked or spun out of existence from the mainstream US media. That evidence provides stunning proof of what Israel’s campaign has actually–has always–been about: the irreversible conquest of Palestinian land and society. The official line (which Washington has basically supported, along with nearly every US media commentator) is that Israel has been defending itself by retaliating against the suicide bombings that have undermined its security and even threatened its existence. That claim has gained the status of an absolute truth, moderated neither by what Israel has done nor by what in fact has been done to it.

Phrases such as “plucking out the terrorist network,” “destroying the terrorist infrastructure” and “attacking terrorist nests” (note the total dehumanization involved) are repeated so often and so unthinkingly that they have given Israel the right to destroy Palestinian civil life, with a shocking degree of sheer wanton destruction, killing, humiliation and vandalism.

There are signs, however, that Israel’s amazing, not to say grotesque, claim to be fighting for its existence is slowly being eroded by the devastation wrought by the Jewish state and its homicidal prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Take this front-page New York Times report, “Attacks Turn Palestinian Plans Into Bent Metal and Piles of Dust,” by Serge Schmemann (no Palestinian propagandist) on April 11: “There is no way to assess the full extent of the damage to the cities and towns–Ramallah, Bethlehem, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Nablus and Jenin–while they remain under a tight siege, with patrols and snipers firing in the streets. But it is safe to say that the infrastructure of life itself and of any future Palestinian state–roads, schools, electricity pylons, water pipes, telephone lines–has been devastated.”

By what inhuman calculus did Israel’s army, using dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers, along with hundreds of missile strikes from US-supplied Apache helicopter gunships, besiege Jenin’s refugee camp for over a week, a one-square-kilometer patch of shacks housing 15,000 refugees and a few dozen men armed with automatic rifles and no missiles or tanks, and call it a response to terrorist violence and a threat to Israel’s survival? There are reported to be hundreds buried in the rubble, which Israeli bulldozers began heaping over the camp’s ruins after the fighting ended. Are Palestinian civilian men, women and children no more than rats or cockroaches that can be attacked and killed in the thousands without so much as a word of compassion or in their defense? And what about the capture of thousands of men who have been taken off by Israeli soldiers, the destitution and homelessness of so many ordinary people trying to survive in the ruins created by Israeli bulldozers all over the West Bank, the siege that has now gone on for months and months, the cutting off of electricity and water in Palestinian towns, the long days of total curfew, the shortage of food and medicine, the wounded who have bled to death, the systematic attacks on ambulances and aid workers that even the mild-mannered Kofi Annan has decried as outrageous? Those actions will not be pushed so easily into the memory hole. Its friends must ask Israel how its suicidal policies can possibly gain it peace, acceptance and security.

The monstrous transformation of an entire people by a formidable and feared propaganda machine into little more than militants and terrorists has allowed not just Israel’s military but its fleet of writers and defenders to efface a terrible history of injustice, suffering and abuse in order to destroy the civil existence of the Palestinian people with impunity. Gone from public memory are the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948 and the creation of a dispossessed people; the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza and their military occupation since 1967; the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, with its 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinian dead and the Sabra and Shatila massacres; the continuous assault on Palestinian schools, refugee camps, hospitals, civil installations of every kind. What antiterrorist purpose is served by destroying the building and then removing the records of the ministry of education; the Ramallah municipality; the Central Bureau of Statistics; various institutes specializing in civil rights, health, culture and economic development; hospitals, radio and TV stations? Isn’t it clear that Sharon is bent not only on breaking the Palestinians but on trying to eliminate them as a people with national institutions?

In such a context of disparity and asymmetrical power it seems deranged to keep asking the Palestinians, who have no army, air force, tanks or functioning leadership, to renounce violence, and to require no comparable limitation on Israel’s actions. It certainly obscures Israel’s systematic use of lethal force against unarmed civilians, copiously documented by all the major human rights organizations. Even the matter of suicide bombers, which I have always opposed, cannot be examined from a viewpoint that permits a hidden racist standard to value Israeli lives over the many more Palestinian lives that have been lost, maimed, distorted and foreshortened by longstanding military occupation and the systematic barbarity openly used by Sharon against Palestinians since the beginning of his career.

There can be no conceivable peace that doesn’t tackle the real issue, which is Israel’s utter refusal to accept the sovereign existence of a Palestinian people that is entitled to rights over what Sharon and most of his supporters consider to be the land of Greater Israel, i.e., the West Bank and Gaza. A profile of Sharon in the April 5 Financial Times concluded with this telling extract from his autobiography, which the FT prefaced with, “He has written with pride of his parents’ belief that Jews and Arabs could be citizens side by side.” Then the relevant passage from Sharon’s book: “But they believed without question that only they had rights over the land. And no one was going to force them out, regardless of terror or anything else. When the land belongs to you physically…that is when you have power, not just physical power but spiritual power.”

In 1988 the PLO made the concession of accepting partition of Palestine into two states. This was reaffirmed on numerous occasions, and certainly in the Oslo documents. But only the Palestinians explicitly recognized the notion of partition. Israel never has. This is why there are now more than 170 settlements on Palestinian land, why there is a 300-mile road network connecting them to each other and totally impeding Palestinian movement (according to Jeff Halper of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, it costs $3 billion and has been funded by the United States), and why no Israeli prime minister has ever conceded any real sovereignty to the Palestinians, and why the settlements have grown on an annual basis. The merest glance at the accompanying map reveals what Israel has been doing throughout the peace process, and what the consequent geographical discontinuity and shrinkage in Palestinian life has been. In effect, Israel considers itself and the Jewish people to own all of Palestine. There are land ownership laws in Israel itself guaranteeing this, but in the West Bank and Gaza the settlements, roads and refusal to concede sovereign land rights to the Palestinians serve the same function.

What boggles the mind is that no official–no US, no Palestinian, no Arab, no UN, no European, or anyone else–has challenged Israel on this point, which has been threaded through all of the Oslo agreements. Which is why, after nearly ten years of peace negotiations, Israel still controls the West Bank and Gaza. They are more directly controlled by more than 1,000 Israeli tanks and thousands of soldiers today, but the underlying principle is the same. No Israeli leader (and certainly not Sharon and his Land of Israel supporters, who are the majority in his government) has either officially recognized the occupied territories as occupied or gone on to recognize that Palestinians could or might theoretically have sovereign rights–that is, without Israeli control over borders, water, air or security–to what most of the world considers Palestinian land. So to speak about the vision of a Palestinian state, as has become fashionable, is a mere vision unless the question of land ownership and sovereignty is openly and officially conceded by the Israeli government. None ever has and, if I am right, none will in the near future. It should be remembered that Israel is the only state in the world today that has never had internationally declared borders; the only state not the state of its citizens but of the whole Jewish people; the only state where more than 90 percent of the land is held in trust for the use only of the Jewish people. That Israel has systematically flouted international law (as argued last week in these pages by Richard Falk) suggests the depth and structural knottiness of the absolute rejectionism that Palestinians have had to face.

This is why I have been skeptical about discussions and meetings about peace, which is a lovely word but in the present context usually means Palestinians are told to stop resisting Israeli control over their land. It is among the many deficiencies of Arafat’s terrible leadership (to say nothing of the even more lamentable Arab leaders in general) that he neither made the decadelong Oslo negotiations ever focus on land ownership, thus never putting the onus on Israel to declare itself willing to give up title to Palestinian land, nor asked that Israel be required to deal with any of its responsibility for the sufferings of his people. Now I worry that he may simply be trying to save himself again, whereas what we really need are international monitors to protect us, as well as new elections to assure a real political future for the Palestinian people.

The profound question facing Israel and its people is this: Is it willing to assume the rights and obligations of being a country like any other, and forswear the kind of impossible colonial assertions for which Sharon and his parents and soldiers have been fighting since day one? In 1948 Palestinians lost 78 percent of Palestine. In 1967 they lost the remaining 22 percent. Now the international community must lay upon Israel the obligation to accept the principle of real, as opposed to fictional, partition, and to accept the principle of limiting Israel’s extraterritorial claims, those absurd, biblically based pretensions and laws that have so far allowed it to override another people. Why is that kind of fundamentalism unquestioningly tolerated? But so far all we hear is that Palestinians must give up violence and condemn terror. Is nothing substantive ever demanded of Israel, and can it go on doing what it has without a thought for the consequences? That is the real question of its existence, whether it can exist as a state like all others, or must always be above the constraints and duties of other states. The record is not reassuring.