August 12, 2001
EVEN as the dazed Israelis were still collecting the pieces of the 16 people who
died in last week’s suicide-bomb attack in Jerusalem, it became apparent that
among certain sections of the British media Israel itself, and not the Palestinian
bomber, was being held to blame.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, found himself
having to justify Israel’s loss: had this tragedy not happened, he was asked by
the BBC, as a result of his government’s own attack upon the militant Islamic
leaders of Hamas the previous week? The unmistakeable sub-text was:
“Haven’t you brought this on yourselves?”
There is certainly a place for aggressive political questioning: it is not, however,
in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist atrocity. We can imagine how British
Government representatives would have responded if, in the dark hours
following the Omagh bomb, members of the foreign media had inquired if this
was not the predictable result of failing to reach agreement with the Real IRA.
As the toll of violence mounts in the Middle East, many people in the West
seem tempted to draw a moral equivalence between the Israeli security forces
and the fanatical members of groups such as Hamas. That temptation should be
It is perhaps too easy to forget that Israel is the only genuine democracy in the
region. Since the beginning of the Middle East “peace process” in 1993 it has
largely honoured the agreements which it brokered with the Palestinians. In a
dramatic change of policy, it allowed Yasser Arafat both to return from exile,
and to set up a Palestinian Authority in Gaza.
Mr Arafat – although elected as the authority’s leader by the vast majority of
voters – has displayed little respect for democracy towards his
Financial corruption in his administration has been rife, and his security
forces have silenced opposition leaders and shut down dissenting newspapers.
Last year, at the Camp David summit, Ehud Barak – the former Israeli army
leader who was then Prime Minister – offered Mr Arafat a handsome package of
concessions. It included the return of 90 per cent of Gaza and the West Bank to
Palestinian control, and the establishment of a limited Palestinian political
presence in East Jerusalem.
The Israeli belief that the city is the Jewish state’s “eternal and
undivided capital” had been voluntarily compromised, and Palestinians were
promised control of Muslim holy sites.
This may not have delivered Mr Arafat’s wish-list in full, but it contained far
greater Israeli concessions than he could ever have imagined possible when he
was in exile in Tunis.
The Palestinian leader, however, chose not only to reject the deal, but to
declare war on Israel. As part of his battle strategy he released from prison
dozens of Islamic militants for whom every Israeli citizen is deemed a legitimate
target for assassination.
Mr Arafat’s ambiguous attitude to Islamic terrorism is a long-standing and
growing impediment to any future rapprochement with Israel. He has recently
shown a willingness to form a “unity government” which would include
representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad – the very people responsible for the
recent scenes of carnage on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The Palestinian leader appears willing to act decisively against such
groups only when they threaten his own political survival, and not the survival
of Israeli citizens.
Last week, after the Jerusalem bombing, the Israeli police took control of the
Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem: it was an attempt to show that
political concessions to the Palestinians would be rescinded if the threat to
Israel’s security mounted.
The response of those close to Mr Arafat was not to restrain the militants on
the Palestinian side, but rather to declare “a battle for Jerusalem”. Ahmed
Abdel-Rahman, one of Arafat’s aides, proclaimed: “The Palestinian people are
left with no choice but to escalate resistance and the Intifada to liberate holy
Little lies at the end of such a battle but the increased suffering of ordinary
Israelis and Palestinians. The escalation of misery, however, is not something
which has greatly troubled Mr Arafat in the past: his leadership of the
Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Lebanon was one of the crucial factors in
a bloody 15-year civil war.
It is fast becoming apparent that Mr Arafat is less a broker of peace than an
obstacle in its way. Should the West fail to acknowledge his sizeable share of
responsibility for events, it will merely confirm Israel in a stronger sense of
As Mr Gold said, shortly before the Jerusalem bomb: “You can get the
best PR in the world but if your people are dying, you haven’t gained anything.”