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Robert Fisk | The Nation

Robert Fisk

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Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent for The Independent.

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The last time I saw Osama bin Laden was in a tent on a mountaintop camp in Afghanistan last year.

First, the Arab League summit here in Beirut was chaos. Then it was the nearest to Arab unity that the Middle East has seen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The chaos, of course, was predictable.

The attacks on the Twin Towers will be called 'mindless terrorism,' but the blowback the United States is experiencing is far from mindless.

All the way up the West Bank, from Ramallah and Nablus to Jenin, the remains of burned tires litter the road. The iron-shuttered shops and empty streets and the high-speed Israeli Army trucks--headlights blazing, steel grills over their windows--tell their own story. For this is a land enduring a conflict that is fast turning into a war of Palestinian independence. Along the settlers' roads the convoys hum, the settlers in their family cars with guns in the back, armored buses sandwiched between truckloads of troops. At the entrance to Jenin, the Palestinian police seem surprised to see us. How did we get through the Israeli checkpoints?

We avoided each checkpoint by driving off into the fields and making our way through olive groves and ancient stone villages to detour around the army. So much for Israeli security. Outside Yabad--a cold stone village in a fold of hills between Jenin and the sea--an Israeli officer warned us not to go further. "I wouldn't go there," he said. "There's a funeral." But the only disturbing thing about Yabad was its sorrow. Just a few hours before, Israeli soldiers had shot dead two brothers--Bilal and Hilal Salah--as they stood on a village embankment above a settlers' road. Their eldest brother said they were shouting abuse. Another villager said they may have been throwing stones. They had grown up together, gone to school together, opened a small restaurant together, been shot in the head together and were now buried together.

What was it President Clinton said last week? That he wanted the youth of "both sides" to come together to help end the "violence"? But the youth to whom he was appealing are dying and killing. Bilal and Hilal Salah were 21 and 18, the soldiers who killed them probably little more than 20. The Israeli officer who warned me not to go to Yabad could not have been more than 25. The young are too busy fighting their war to worry about Clinton.

It is a curious reflection on this unfolding tragedy that Israel is able to set the daily news agenda. Can Arafat control his people? Are Palestinians deliberately putting their children in the line of fire? These questions were set by the Israeli government and duly parroted by CNN and the BBC World Service, each question effectively blaming the Palestinians for their own deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Repeatedly, Palestinians shot in the head by Israelis were reported as having died in "clashes" or "crossfire," as if their deaths were attributable to some natural disaster rather than to the wholesale Israeli use of live bullets, which, if employed against protesters by, say, the Serbs, would have elicited a world outcry.

In reality, Arafat's "control" is irrelevant. It is the Palestinian people who are setting the limits to this armed intifada, who are effectively dictating the course of their war against the Israelis. There is no controlling agent--neither for stone-throwers nor for Palestinian policemen who fire at the Israelis nor for the mob that lynched two Israeli soldiers. Sheer despair at the perceived injustice of the Oslo agreement--a treaty that seemed certain to cheat them of a capital in East Jerusalem, a return of refugees and an end to massive Jewish settlements on occupied land--simply overwhelmed the clichés about the "peace process" and the need to put Oslo "back on track."

If the new intifada proves one thing, it is that Oslo is dead. Palestinians no longer speak of it in the present tense. They talk only of UN Security Council Resolution 242, the original foundation of the Oslo agreement--steadily whittled away by Israeli and US negotiators--as a possible settlement. That 1967 resolution, so rarely mentioned now by State Department officials, calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territory captured in the 1967 Six-Day War in return for the security of all states (including Israel) in the area. It also insists on the illegality of the acquisition of land through war. And 242, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, means a return to the 1967 borders of Israel. No more occupation of the West Bank or Gaza (or the Golan Heights) or of East Jerusalem, illegally annexed by Israel.

This, of course, has never been on offer to the Arabs--even though then-Secretary of State James Baker said, in private letters to Arab leaders in 1991, that it would form the basis of a Middle East peace. But if the Palestinians hold out, if they refuse to return to the poisoned Oslo negotiating table, the world--or so they pathetically hope--will ask why 242 cannot be implemented, just as other nations (Iraq and Serbia come to mind) are expected to abide by Security Council resolutions.

But is the hope so pathetic? How important is it to keep 200,000 settlers in Gaza and the West Bank, surrounded by Palestinians in a potential Palestinian state? Must every Israeli be held hostage to these often messianic men and women who appear to believe their land deeds have been personally bestowed by God rather than law, whose presence requires thousands of Israeli troops to risk their lives, whose own homes are now--in what may be the start of a deliberate campaign to evict them--coming under Palestinian attack?

Israel claims all Jerusalem to be its unified and "eternal" capital. But this is in fact--if not in theory--untrue. Few Israelis will venture into "their" eastern part of Jerusalem, even in daylight. Few taxis will travel there from Jewish West Jerusalem. With a peace treaty--a real peace, with 242 at its center--East Jerusalem would be Palestinian. But a real peace treaty already allows Israelis to visit in safety the streets of Amman and Cairo. Would they not feel safer walking the streets of an East Jerusalem whose owners were at peace with Israel than one whose population hates their presence in those same streets? Why must Israel own East Jerusalem in order to enjoy it?

These may seem to be idle questions when almost 150 Palestinians, and at least ten Israelis, have died. It has become tasteless to compare the two statistics because they prove that the Palestinians are by far the greater victims--just as the Bosnian Muslims were by far the greater victims of the Bosnian war. But it is a fact that the Palestinians are now dying for a new cause, for a state that must be founded on 242.

True, they grasp too swiftly the easy options that present themselves. Resolution 242 will have to be resurrected and reargued, not just repeated like a mantra by every Arafat spokesman. Every Palestinian family now watches the television station of the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, who finally drove the Israelis out of southern Lebanon in May. Fight with weapons, the Hezbollah tell the Palestinians. Liberate your country as we did. But Gaza is not southern Lebanon and Jerusalem is not Beirut. Even if it is true that Arafat's men have a few antiarmor missiles up their sleeve for an Israeli tank thrust into Gaza and a few thousand Beirut veterans to take on Israeli infantry, their people could die in the hundreds before the world demanded an end to the slaughter.

And slaughter there will be if this war goes on. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon ended with the massacre at Sabra and Shatila; the 1996 bombardment of southern Lebanon ended with the massacre of 106 Lebanese refugees by Israeli artillerymen at Qana. How soon before some horror stops this latest conflict dead in its tracks? Arafat is being advised to demand a "multilateral force"--not necessarily a UN one--to protect the Palestinians. It could--indeed, in the eyes of some Palestinians it must--include US troops. Put American troops on the ground in "Palestine," they think, and the safety of US soldiers will take precedence in Washington, even over its alliance with Israel.

But these are early days, and the immediate future will be decided by the street and statistics. Bilal and Hilal Salah were Yabad's first intifada victims. All that is certain after their funeral is that they will not be the last.

The final confrontation between Hezbollah and Israeli troops will stand
alongside Anwar Sadat's 1977 arrival in Jerusalem and the extraordinary
handshake (fatal for Yitzhak Rabin and perhaps fo