The Israeli fighter jets began their dance above Gaza City just as President George Bush's special envoy and his CIA team drew up at Mohammed Dahlan's office this week.
The Palestinian security minister smiled as he reflected on the incident in a rare interview the next day, after a week of spearheading attempts to get Hamas to end its attacks on Israel and the Israelis to stop assassinations in Gaza.
Mr Bush's envoy, John Wolf, wanted to discuss hostility to the peace process among ordinary Palestinians and the dangers posed by Hamas. But as the jets raced overhead, Mr Dahlan had only to raise his eyes to see what he believes is the real threat to the US-led road map to peace. His suspicion that the real obstacle is not "terrorism" was strengthened last week by Israel's botched assassination attempt against Hamas's political leader, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi.
"It's the Israeli army that holds the key, at least on the streets," he said. "We were actually getting close to an agreement with Hamas but because the Israeli army rejects the idea that there can be an internal agreement [among Palestinians], they hit Rantissi. As long as they keep saying they are at war, then they will find justifications for 'mistakes' like killing children and women which create so much anger on the streets and make this whole road map process harder."
He said Israeli democracy was being subordinated to the will of the military, with Ariel Sharon providing the shield: "Sharon is giving them political cover. The army is using the politicians as camouflage to destroy the peace process."
Israeli soldiers handcuff detained Palestinians in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron. Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan has said the real obstacle to the US-led roadmap to peace was not terrorism but the Israeli army. (AFP/Hazem Bader)
The Israeli army's chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon, gave added cause for concern this week when he told his soldiers that he did not care if the military "looks like lunatics", in its fight against Hamas. Israelis have begun to wonder about the intentions of the prime minister and his defense minister, General Shaul Mofaz, after the failed attempt to kill Dr Rantissi. In an opinion poll 40% said the attack, which set off a week of killing that led to nearly 70 deaths on both sides, had been aimed at derailing the road map.
Some Palestinian leaders privately say that Mr Sharon's intention, in league with the army, is to force a conflict between Mr Dahlan's forces and Hamas.
"No one will force us into a conflict with Hamas," Mr Dahlan said. "Those who do not want a truce are Sharon and the Israeli army, and some leaders in Hamas. What do they want? They want to maintain the status quo because they have an interest in maintaining the status quo.
"I told Sharon this: 'Convince me you want peace. I understand that Hamas does not need a truce, assuming they don't want peace. And you?' He was silent. He didn't like the comparison."
The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, arrives in Israel today to mediate. It is a reflection of how swiftly confidence has sunk after the summit with President Bush in Aqaba a fortnight ago when the Palestinians and Israelis were hailing a turning point after 33 months of killing.
Mr Dahlan said he had faith in the Americans partly because of his encounter with Mr Bush there. Also in the room were Mr Sharon, Gen Mofaz and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister.
Mr Dahlan gave a five-minute synopsis of the Palestinian view of the security situation and the difficulties he faces because the Israelis have destroyed much of the Palestinian security infrastructure. At the end of the briefing, Gen Mofaz, jumped in. "Well, they won't be getting any help from us; they have their own security service," he said. Mr Bush turned on Gen Mofaz."Their own security service? But you have destroyed their security service," he said. Gen Mofaz remained firm. "I do not think that we can help them, Mr President," he said. Mr Bush replied: "Oh, but I think that you can and I think that you will." A similar confrontation followed with Mr Sharon.
Towards the end of the summit, Mr Bush is reported to have told Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, that he liked and trusted Mr Abbas and Mr Dahlan but Mr Sharon was "a problem".
But if Mr Bush trusts the two Palestinian leaders, the Palestinian people do not. Mr Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was vilified at the end of the summit for calling an end to the intifada and for implicitly equating it with terrorism rather than a legitimate struggle against occupation. Mr Abbas believed that the Palestinians gained after Mr Bush put pressure on Mr Sharon to commit himself to a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. But Mr Dahlan conceded that ordinary Palestinians were are seeing few benefits. "It's important to bring Palestinian people achievements. That's what we're trying to explain to the Israelis, that we have to have something to show our people. For example to stop the aggression, and to lift the closures and the sieges, and to give Palestinians some hope in life."
This week's scramble to rescue the peace process included a plan to make life easier for Palestinians in Gaza by ceding security control to Mr Dahlan. He had demanded that the Israelis scrap the roadblocks which curtail movement in the Gaza Strip. But Israel's military commander in the occupied territories, Major-General Amos Gilad, proposed that the main road running through the south of Gaza be given over exclusively for the use of 4,000 Jewish settlers and that Palestinians take back roads. Mr Dahlan was outraged.
"They are not serious. They are taking into consideration the settlers at the expense of the peace process," he said.
He admitted that the road map offered no guarantee of a just settlement, with Israel willing to hand over about half of the occupied land. But he said this would be no solution to the conflict: "We are risking our lives and offering our corpses because we don't want the next generation, our sons and daughters, to suffer in the way we did. But if the Israelis want to continue the same way, they will pay the price and we will all pay the price."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003