In the United States, where Israel has its main political base and from which it has received more than $92 billion in aid since 1967, the terrible human cost of Thursday's Jerusalem restaurant bombing settles quickly into a familiar explanatory framework. Arafat hasn't done enough to control his terrorists; suicidal Islamic extremists are to be found everywhere, driven by sheer human hatred; Israel must defend its security. A thoughtful individual might add: these people have been fighting tiresomely for thousands of years; the violence must be stopped; there's been too much suffering on both sides, although the way Palestinians send their children into battle is another sign of how much Israel has to put up with.
In America Israel has pretty much won the propaganda war, and America is where it is about to put several more million dollars into a public relations campaign (using such stars as Zubin Mehta, Yitzhak Pearlman and Amos Oz) to further improve its image.
But consider what Israel's unrelenting war against the undefended, basically unarmed, stateless and poorly led Palestinian people has already achieved. The disparity in power is so vast that it makes you cry. Equipped with the latest in American-built air power, helicopter gunships, uncountable tanks and missiles, and a superb navy as well as a state of the art intelligence service, Israel is a nuclear power abusing a people without any armor or artillery, no air force - its one pathetic airfield in Gaza is controlled by Israel - or navy or army air defenses, none of the institutions of a modern state.
The appallingly, unbroken history of Israel's 34-year-old military occupation (the second longest in modern history) of illegally conquered Palestinian land has been obliterated from public memory, as has been the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948 and the expulsion of 68 per cent of its native people, of whom 4.5 million remain refugees today. Behind the reams of newspeak, the stark outlines of Israel's decades-long daily pressure on a people whose main sin is that they happened to be there, in Israel's way, is staggeringly perceptible in its inhuman sadism. The cruel confinement of 1.3 million people jammed into the Gaza strip, plus the plight of the nearly two million Palestinian residents of the West Bank have no parallels in the annals of apartheid or colonialism.
F-16 warplanes never bombed South African homelands. They are used against Palestinian towns and villages. All entrances and exits to the territories are controlled by Israel (Gaza is completely surrounded by barbed wire), which also controls the water supply. Divided into about 63 cantons, completely encircled and besieged by Israeli troops, punctuated by 140 settlements with their own road network banned to 'non-Jews', Palestinians under occupation have now been reduced to 60 per cent unemployment and a poverty rate of 50 per cent.
They must endure long queues at Israeli checkpoints which detain and humiliate the elderly, the sick, the student and the cleric for hours on end; 150,000 of their olive and citrus trees have been punitively uprooted; 2,000 of their houses have been demolished and acres of their land destroyed or seized.
Since the latest intifada began late last September, 609 Palestinians have been killed - four times the number of Israelis - and 15,000 wounded, a dozen times more than on the other side. Regular Israeli army assassinations have picked off alleged terrorists at will, mostly killing innocent people like so many flies. Last week 14 Palestinians were murdered openly by Israeli forces, and thus 'prevented' from killing Israelis, although at least two children and five innocents were also murdered. Nameless and faceless, Israel's daily Palestinian victims barely rate a mention on America's news.
Nor is this all. Israel's plan is to make life impossible for Palestinians so that they will leave, or give up, or do something crazy like blow themselves up. Since 1967 leaders have been jailed and deported by the Israeli occupation regime, small businesses and farms made unviable by confiscation and sheer destruction, students prevented from studying, universities closed.
After eight fruitless years of the Oslo negotiations, the occupation has merely been packaged more efficiently and the phrase 'peace process' given a consecrated halo that allowed more abuses, more settlements, more imprisonments, more Palestinian suffering than before. Israel has implanted no less than 400,000 settlers on Palestinian land.
Ariel Sharon was swept to power essentially to 'subdue' the Palestinians, teach them a lesson, get rid of them. His record as an Arab killer goes back 30 years before the Sabra and Shatila massacres that his forces supervised in 1982, and for which he has now been indicted in a Belgian court.
But he isn't a fool. With every Palestinian act of resistance, his forces ratchet up the pressure higher, tightening the siege more, taking more land, cutting off more supplies, openly assassinating Palestinian leaders, making life more intolerable.
Pity not the inept, clumsy, pathetic Arab governments which can and will do nothing to stop Israel: pity the people who bear the wounds in their flesh and the emaciated bodies of their children, some of whom believe that martyrdom is the only way out for them.
And is Israel, stuck in a futureless campaign, flailing about mercilessly? If this was supposed to fulfill Jewish aspirations, why did it require so many new victims from another people who had nothing to do with Jewish exile and persecution in the first place?
Edward Said is a professor at Columbia University, New York
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001