There wasn't a scrap of Inas Abu Zein left. She was only seven, and the martyrs posters already going up around Khan Younis show her to have been a small, delicate-featured little girl. But there wasn't a trace of her amid the fragments of corrugated iron and plastic, not in the soft brown Gaza sand. Inas had been atomized, turned to dust in a millisecond. "I will show you where the missile came from," a whey-faced boy told me, pointing far across the sand to where a clutch of hovels old concrete huts with rag windows and flapping, sand-caked washing stood near the horizon. "The Israelis fired from behind those houses. It was a tank."
Was it so? I said that to myself, not as a question but as another of those little remarks you find yourself making in Gaza. Lie? Truth? Do they matter when a war has grown so brutal, so cruel as this? Inas's father Sulieman died with her. So did his six-year-old son, also named Sulieman. I don't think I've come across a war in which children are killed so quickly. If it's not an Israeli baby in a Palestinian sniper's crosshairs, it's two pesky Palestinian kids stupid enough to stand outside a Hamas office when the Israelis have chosen to blow the place away, or schoolkids who decide to take an early afternoon pizza, or Inas and Sulieman junior who got in the way or if Hamas was lying and the Israelis are telling the truth were turned to wet dust by their father's bomb.
The Palestinian Authority had made a clean sweep of the Abu Zeins' back yard. If he was making a bomb, it had disappeared, like Inas. I poked around amid the desert trash. There were some pulverized bits of plastic roofing, more corrugated metal. The explosion, in the late evening, must have occurred beneath the plastic. How could an Israeli missile fly over the other huts, turn the corner outside the Abu Zeins' back yard, pass over the yard walls and then dip below the plastic roof to blow the family apart? But who would make a bomb with his two tiny children standing next to him? Or maybe there was a bomb hidden at the back of the yard and Inas or Sulieman junior touched it.
A little crowd had gathered round us, unsmiling, suspicious. It's not so easy now to investigate these deaths. "I'm Norwegian, but Palestinians have started to look at me in the street and talk about me as if I'm an American," a smiling Norwegian lady aid worker told me. "They blame the Americans for what the Israelis do. And now they blame the Europeans because we do nothing to help them." Which is exactly what happened to foreigners in Lebanon 15 years ago. The Norwegian lady was right. I was watched as I walked through the street in Gaza City, scrutinized by small crowds in Rafah. At Kalandia just outside Jerusalem, on the road to Ramallah a Palestinian boy of perhaps 12 looked at my car's Israeli registration plates, picked up an iron bar and smashed it as hard as he could on to the back mudguard. Two men in a truck we were all waiting at one of Israel's humiliating checkpoints jeered at me.
Everywhere in Gaza, you notice the signs of collapse, of incipient anarchy. The murals used to show Yasser Arafat's beaming, ugly mug and pictures of the Al Aqsa mosque. Now they are filled with exploding buses and dead children and Israeli soldiers on their backs with blood squirting from their heads. "They don't even talk about Arafat any more," a Palestinian café owner says to me as three horse-drawn water carts clop lazily past us. "There's only one joke going the rounds about him. Arafat is at Camp David and the Israelis are demanding that he 'ends the violence'. And Arafat replies: 'I can't end the violence until I can stop my lips from trembling.'"
Arafat's growing senility is a source of deepening concern. Not far from Hebron, I meet a prominent Palestinian figure, important enough to require anonymity in this context, who shakes his head in despair. "What can Arafat do now? His marriage is in bits he's only seen his wife for three minutes in the past 10 months. His child needs a father and he's not there. And he's allowing the whole place to tribalize and disintegrate. There is complete disintegration here."
It's true. On the road south of Nablus, a yellow Palestinian taxi is hit by a stone apparently thrown by an Israeli driver in an oncoming car, or that's what the cops thought and careers off the road. Its driver, Kemal Mosalem, is killed outright. But when his body arrives at the Rafidiye hospital, his family apparently believe he has been killed by a rival Palestinian clan led by Ali Frej. The two families have been feuding over control of the local branch of Fatah (the dominant faction of the PLO). The Frej family then ambush the grieving Mosalem family with Kalashnikov rifles. Among the four Palestinian dead are Ali Frej and a Fatah official who had been part of Jibril Rajoub's "preventative security" outfit. Six others are wounded. These are Arafat's people. They are killing each other. And Arafat remains silent.
Yet here's the thing. Ariel Sharon keeps saying that Arafat is a murderer, a super-terrorist, the leader of "international terror", linked to Osama bin Laden, a man who gives orders for the murder of kids in pizza parlors. And the Israeli public are buying this, their journalists front-paging it, their people repeating it over and over. Talking to Israelis in taxis, on airplanes, in cafés I keep hearing the same stuff. Terror, murder, filth. Like a cassette. Where have I heard this before?
In Gaza, I cannot fail to remember Beirut in 1982, when Sharon's invading army had surrounded the PLO. Gaza now is a miniature Beirut. Under Israeli siege, struck by F-16s and tank fire and gunboats, starved and often powerless there are now six-hour electricity cuts a day it's as if Arafat and Sharon are replaying their bloody days in Lebanon. And Sharon used to call Arafat a mass murderer back then. It's important not to become obsessed during wars. But Sharon's words were like a ghost to me. Every morning in these past few weeks, I would pick up the Jerusalem Post. And there on the front page, as usual, would be another Sharon diatribe. PLO murderers, Palestinian Authority terror. Murderous terrorists.
Each day, I travel to the scene of new Israeli incursions. The Israelis bomb Palestinian police stations, Palestinian security annexes, Palestinian police positions. Why the police? I drive round the Gaza Strip with an old friend from the Beirut war, a European aid worker who still bears the webbed scar of a bullet in his arm and stomach the round punctured his spleen and liver. "Now if you look to your right, Bob, there's the police station that the Israelis bombed two weeks ago," he says. There's a mass of burned-out rooms and a crumpled office. "And just round the corner here is the police post the Israelis hit last week." More trashed buildings. "And down that road you can just see the Palestinian offices that were hit in July." After the early raids, the Palestinians would do a quick rebuilding and repainting job. Now they no longer bother. But how can Arafat "arrest the murderers" if the Israelis are going to destroy all his police stations?
There was a story told to me by one of the men investigating Sharon's responsibility for the Sabra and Chatila massacre, that the then Israeli defense minister before he sent his Phalangist allies into the Sabra and Chatila camps announced that Palestinian "terrorists" had murdered the Phalangists' newly assassinated leader, president-elect Bashir Gemayel. Sharon was to say later that he never dreamed the Phalange would massacre the Palestinians. But how could he say that if he had claimed earlier that the Palestinians killed the leader of the Phalange? In reality, no Palestinians were involved. It might seem odd in this new war to be dwelling on that earlier blood-letting. But I was fascinated by the language. Murderers, terrorists. That's what Sharon said then. And that's what he says now. Did he really make that statement in 1982? I began to work the phone from Jerusalem, calling up Associated Press bureau that might still have their files from 19 years ago. He would have made that speech if indeed he used those words some time on 15 September.
One Sunday afternoon, my phone rings in Jerusalem. It's from an American Jewish man whom I met in Jaffa Street after the Hamas suicide bomber blew himself and 15 Israeli civilians to pieces on 9 August. An Israeli woman had been screaming abuse at me foreign journalists are being insulted by both sides with ever more violent language and this man suddenly intervenes to protect me. He's smiling and cheerful courageous might be the right word after the atrocity that had just been committed and we exchange phone numbers. Now on the phone, he says he's taking the El Al night flight back home to New York with his wife. Would I like to drop by for tea before he goes?
He turns out to have a luxurious apartment next to the King David Hotel and I notice, when I read his name on the outside security buzzer, that he's a rabbi. He's angry because a neighbor has just let down a friend's car tires in the underground parking lot and he's saying how he felt like smashing the windows of the neighbor's car. His wife, bringing me tea and feeding me cookies, says that her husband again, he should remain anonymous gets angry very quickly. There's a kind of gentleness about them both how easy it is to spot couples who are still in love that is appealing. But when the rabbi starts to talk about the Palestinians, his voice begins to echo through the apartment. He says several times that Sharon is a good friend of his, a fine man, who's been to visit him in his New York office.
"What we should do is go into those vermin pits and take out the terrorists and murderers. Vermin pits, yes, I said vermin, animals. I tell you what we should do. If one stone is lobbed from a refugee camp, we should bring the bulldozers and tear down the first 20 houses close to the road. If there's another stone, another 20 houses. They'd soon learn not to throw stones. Look, I tell you this. Stones are lethal. If you throw a stone at me, I'll shoot you. I have the right to shoot you."
Now, the rabbi is a generous man. He'd been in Israel to donate a vastly important and, I have no doubt, vastly expensive medical center to the country. He was well-read. And I liked the fact that, unlike too many Israelis and Palestinians who put on a "we-only-want-peace" routine to hide more savage thoughts, he at least spoke his mind. But this was getting out of hand. Why should I throw a stone at the rabbi? He shouted again. "If you throw a stone at me, I will shoot you." But if you throw a stone at me, I won't shoot you, I said. Because I have the right not to shoot you. He frowned. "Then I'd say you're out of your mind."
I was driving home when it suddenly hit me. The Old and New Testaments had just collided. The rabbi's dad had taught him about an eye for an eye or 20 homes for a stone, in this case whereas my dad had taught me about turning the other cheek. Judaism and Christianity had collided. So was it any surprise that Judaism and Islam were colliding? For despite all the talk of Christians and Jews being "people of the Book", Muslims are beginning to express ever harsher views of Jews. The sickening Hamas references to Jews as "the sons of pigs and monkeys" are echoed by Israelis who talk of Palestinians as cockroaches, who tell you as my friend the rabbi did to me that Islam is a warrior religion, a religion that does not value human life. And I recalled several times the Jewish settler who told me back in 1993 in Gaza, just before the Oslo accords were signed that "we do not recognize their Koran as a valid document".
Now it's my turn to get angry. I walk out of the Independent's office and home in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Tor to find my car surrounded by glass. The driver's window has been smashed, the radio torn out. It is plastered with "TV" stickers, in the hope that Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers will not open fire. Abu Tor is mostly Arab although the Independent's house is right on the old green line, Arabs to the right of the front door, mostly Jews to the left. I drive down to the Hertz rental agency, sitting on piles of glass. The girl tells me that to avail of Hertz's insurance, I have to report the robbery to the police. She tells me to go to the Russian Compound.
I know a bit about the Russian Compound from Amnesty's reports. This is where most of the Israeli torture goes on, the infamous, and occasionally deadly, "shaking" of suspected Palestinian "terrorists". It should be an interesting trip. The moment I park my car, a loudspeaker shrieks at me in Hebrew. A cop tells me that for security reasons I have to park round the corner. No trouble with that. I watch two big police vans with sealed windows pass through the security barrier. I park and return to the door. "Where was your car robbed?" I was asked. Just outside the office, in Abu Tor, I replied. The policewoman shrugged. "Well, what do you expect?" she asked. I understood what she meant. Abu Tor is mostly Arab, Palestinian. And Arabs rob, don't they, they steal car radios as well as blow up pizzerias. I waited for an hour. There was no cop to make out a report, although there were more than 200 surrounding Orient House, half a mile away across the city.
I spent three days watching the pathetic demonstrations that followed Israel's seizure of the PLO offices. Hanan Ashrawi, the senior PLO spokeswoman and politician, turned up to demand the right to enter. She was refused. But she came a day late, when most of the TV cameras had gone. Always late, the Palestinians.
But even when the cameras were there, it didn't stop the border police turning on several Palestinian youths. They were beaten in front of the cameras, groined and punched and head-locked by six cops. One was laid in a van where he was held down so that another policemen could stamp on his testicles. A young security man couldn't take his eyes off this vile scene, bending down low, right in front of me, to see where the other cop's boot was landing between the youth's thighs. How could they do this in front of the cameras? I kept asking myself. And then the dark thought occurred to me: that the police want the cameras to film this, that they want the Palestinians to see what happens to them when they oppose Israel, when they demonstrate, when they object as one boy did by holding up a paper Palestinian flag.
I think it's the psychological shock of violence that always hits first. The sudden realization that human beings are going to hurt each other. It afflicts everyone in this conflict. I had been attending the funeral of a Hamas man in Tulkarem, in the north of the occupied West Bank, and was returning to my taxi, which was parked on the Israeli side of the line. On the map of the West Bank and Gaza a broken window of settler roads and frontiers Area A is supposed to be Palestinian-controlled and Area C Israeli-controlled. When I'd crossed from Area C to Area A in the morning, the road was a litter of garbage and stones. But when I returned, there was a battle in progress, kids throwing stones at Israeli positions, rubber-coated steel bullets thwacking back through the trees, burning tires
I was tired and hungry and impatient to return to Jerusalem. So I grabbed the boys beside the burning tires and told them I was a journalist, that I had to cross back through the line. I found two more sinister figures lurking in a wrecked bus shelter. I told them the same. Then I walked between the burning tires towards the unseen Israelis, slowly, almost a dawdle. Then a stone landed at my feet. Just a very small stone, but it landed with a nasty little crack. Then, when I turned round, another hissed past my face. One of the Palestinian boys began to shriek with laughter. I kept walking slowly and realized that I would have physically to dodge each well-aimed stone calmly, as if it was perfectly normal for an Independent correspondent to be stoned by Palestinians on a hot summer's afternoon. The road ran parallel with Area A now, and a teenager with a sling-shot came crashing through the trees I could hear the whir of the rope. The stone came towards me so fast that I couldn't duck, but it missed me by about a foot and smashed into the iron wall of an Israeli factory. The crash made me look around. I was in the middle of an abandoned garden shop, surrounded by pots and cement eagles and deer and tree-holders. One of the eagles had lost its head. Then three more stones, maybe 8in long. I realized what had happened, of course. The Palestinians knew I was a foreign journalist I had shown them my Lebanese press card. But the moment I crossed the line, I had become an Israeli. The moment they could no longer distinguish my face, they no longer cared. I was an Israeli because I was on the Israeli side of the line. And I wonder what my friend the rabbi would have done.
Back in Jerusalem, I work the phone again, trying to track down that elusive quotation. If you call people animals, terrorists, vermin, can you be surprised when they behave so violently? Is it any wonder that Arafat is himself tribalizing the garbage tips he still controls, playing the Musris and Nabulsis of Nablus off against each other, backing the Shakars of Nablus and the Shawars of Gaza, placating Hamas or Islamic Jihad by saying nothing about their organizations, merely issuing routine condemnation of suicide bombings, and by mouthing the old revolutionary rhetoric I used to hear in Lebanon 20 years ago? Some say he is now frightened of the religious men, fearful of the contrast between the ideology of the suicide bomber and the tired, inept, corrupt old men who surround him. I found one of them in an office, swigging from a beer bottle.
And I think of Lebanon again, of the disintegration of armies. And I realize, each time I see their checkpoints and their beatings, that the Israeli army is suffering its own disintegration; you notice it everywhere, the sullen, violent soldiers for whom stone-throwers are worthy of execution, the indiscipline of the police, the casual acceptance of murder squads and death-by-missile.
On the way to Jenin, we are stopped by Israeli border guards. On the sweaty road, we call the Israeli army press office for permission to pass. There's a small Jewish settlement up the hill, all red roofs and luscious foliage. It's strange how naturally we treat these little land-thefts now. By calling them settlements and their inhabitants "settlers", we all help to perpetuate a lie, that these people are in the Old West tradition, making the badlands bloom, ready to fight off the natives. And we forget that this is the only colonial project still in existence the French word for settlers, colons, is more accurate and this battle between Palestinians and Israelis is the world's last colonial war. As long as the Israelis can puff it up as a "war against terror", they'll be able to conceal this. But we should be using the word "colony". Just as the French did before they were driven out of Algeria.
Then the border guards get bored. One of them switches on the Jeep's loudspeaker and hooks the mike to his mobile phone and begins playing the music "hold" button. Three lines of the 1812 Overture, three lines of Beethoven's Fifth, three lines of the Water Music, all squawking out at high decibels, distorted and high-pitched, spilling its hi-tech destruction of the world's greatest musicians over the sweltering road with its lizards and bushes and garbage.
It's a relief to find sanity. On a flight into Tel Aviv I find myself sitting next to an Israeli paratroop officer. I give him my own gloomy assessment an "intifada" that will go on until 2004. He says it will last well into 2006. "And in the end, we'll be back on the '67 border and give them East Jerusalem as their capital," he says. And then he adds: "But given the way we're treating them, I'd be surprised if they'd settle for that." I ask a Palestinian in Rafah what he thinks. "Two thousand and five, 2006, what difference does it make? But I tell you one thing. After this 'intifada' is over, there will be a revolt against Arafat. How did he ever allow this to happen? How did he ever think he could win?"
And again I remember Beirut. After Arafat and the PLO left Lebanon in 1982, a rebellion started among his own guerrillas. A man called Abu Moussa turned Palestinian against Palestinian, helping to lay siege to the PLO when Arafat briefly returned to the Lebanese city of Tripoli. The Syrians chose Abu Moussa as mutineer he still lives in Damascus and so I find myself asking who is the new Abu Moussa? Have the Israelis chosen him yet?
I am driving again through Gaza. Beside the road, a group of middle-aged men are sitting under a green awning; some have their heads in their hands, others are just looking at the sand. They are mourning Mohamed Abu Arrar, shot in the head by an Israeli soldier while throwing stones. He was just 13.
Every wall has become a mosaic of posters: dead youths, dead old men, dead children, dead women, dead suicide bombers; usually they have a colored photograph of the Al Aqsa mosque behind their heads, a building some of them will never have seen.
Just outside Khan Younis, the Israelis have bulldozed acres of citrus groves and houses for "security" reasons, of course, since there is a Jewish settlement in the distance and left yet another bit of "Palestine" looking like the moon. "Well, they say it's for security of course," a European official tells me. "But I have a question. There were three houses standing over there, one of them was finished and lived in, the other two were still just walls and roofs. The Israelis said they could be used for ambushes. So a bulldozer comes and totally demolishes the completed home, and then just destroys the staircase of the two unfinished houses. Now, how can that be for 'security'?"
Down at Rafah, I come across the truly surreal. A middle-aged man steps out of a tent right on the border the Egyptian flag behind him almost touching the Israeli flag and asks me if I would like to see the ruins of his toy shop. And there it is, right beside the tent, a tumble of concrete blocks, model telephones, lampshades, clocks, toy helicopters and one large outsize till. "The Israelis destroyed it in May and I stayed till the very last moment, running into that alleyway when the tanks arrived," he says. Mohamed al-Shaer, it turns out, is a Palestinian with an Egyptian passport. "I've got one house over there behind the palm tree," he says, pointing across the Israeli frontier wall. "And I'm here to guard this property." He's allowed to pass back and forth like other dual-citizen Rafah residents because of a 1906 agreement between the Ottoman Empire and Britain that he proceeds to explain in complex and unending detail. Behind him, children are flying kites and each time a kite floats over the frontier wire an Israeli soldier fires a shot. It cracks across the muck and sand and the children shout with pleasure. "Cra-crack", it goes again. "They always shoot at the kites or the kids," Mohamed al-Shaer says. He learnt his English as a computer programmer in Cairo and explains fluently that the real reason he stays is that he has a brother whom he distrusts, that the brother lives on the Palestinian side of Rafah and might re-register the land on which the shop was built as his own if Mohamed returned to Egypt. Every night, Palestinians shoot from these streets at the Israelis which is why the Israelis destroyed Mohamed al-Shaer's shop. "These were the bullet holes from last night," he says, pointing at three fist-sized cavities in the wall of the nearest building. "I could hear the bullets going over my tent." I wonder how this little cameo can be written: a Palestinian at war with his own brother, sitting in a tent next to a demolished toy shop watching the Israelis shooting at kites.
I call up an old friend, an American Jewish woman with a talent for going through archives. I give her the date that is still going through my head, 15 September 1982, the last hours for up to 2,000 Palestinians who were about to be murdered in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut. She comes back on the line the same night. "Turn your fax on," Shifra says. "You're going to want to read this." The paper starts to crinkle out of the machine. An AP report of 15 September 1982. "Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, in a statement, tied the killing [of the Phalangist leader Gemayel] to the PLO, saying that "it symbolizes the terrorist murderousness of the PLO terrorist organizations and their supporters".
A few hours later, Sharon sent the Phalange into the camps. Reading that fax again and again, I felt a chill come over me. There are Israelis today who feel as much rage towards the Palestinians as the Phalange felt 19 years ago. And these are the same words I am hearing today, from the same man, about the same people. Why?
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd