The little town of Bethlehem does not lie still in deep or dreamless sleep. Instead a Palestinian altar boy was machine-gunned to death in Manger Square when Israeli tanks stormed in and occupied six Palestinian towns, leaving many others dead in their wake. Israeli hit-squad assassinations of suspected Palestinian terrorist leaders have now reached over 40 dead.
But six days into Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, there is still no response from George Bush. A state department spokesman did call for Israeli withdrawal and behind the scenes pressure is being applied. But what is needed urgently is the same thunderous and threatening language the president applies to the war in Afghanistan. Spell it out - no more money, no more support, no sympathy for future attacks until Israel withdraws and talks start at once on building the promised independent Palestinian state.
Israel does not get the new global message, does not see how little patience its old friends have for Sharon's dangerous hard line. That is partly because the message has still not been delivered by presidential megaphone so that the whole world hears, announcing an end to the double standards of the west's treatment of Palestinians. As the war progresses in Afghanistan, the quid pro quo must come for Palestine. It will not wait: Afghanistan may not be resolved unless Palestine gets justice at the same time.
When I wrote recently about the need for Israel to withdraw back to its 1967 borders and dismantle its aggressive settlements, a sea of email accusations of anti-semitism swept in from all the over the world. Anyone calling for Israeli withdrawal gets these - and if they have a Jewish-sounding name it sometimes comes with the added insult that they must be "self-hating Jews".
Confident that they could always twist the arm of any president or Congress by threatening the Jewish vote, Israel has not needed to confront the way the world sees it until now. But the moment of truth came when Israel stopped being a lone victim of Islamic terrorism - all the west are victims or potential victims now. It is in danger of finding itself as alone as South Africa after the fall of communism. Ugly Israel is the Middle Eastern representative of ugly America - and though it is not the sole cause, Palestine is the rallying cry for the terrorism that hurled itself at the World Trade Center. Once secure as the west's best friend, overnight Israel's failure to make peace has turned into a lethal liability.
Why, the Israelis ask angrily, should the world turn against them - victims acting in self-defense - instead of directing all anger at the perpetrators of suicide bombings and deliberate massacres of innocent Israeli civilians? Because, as Israel itself keeps pointing out, they remain one of us, ours, our people, partly our creation. The west that sustained and protected it in its fragility for all these years is also morally responsible for its behavior and must take the blame for its abuses.
For the left, Israel was once Jerusalem the Golden, Zionist banners fluttered on Aldermaston peace marches, young idealists worked in summers on socialist kibbutzim, full of all the earnest hopes described in Linda Grant's excellent novel about early Israel, When I Lived in Modern Times. Now the left feels all the more betrayed by Ariel Sharon, war criminal, igniting the intifada by striding into the al-Aqsa mosque and using the trouble he caused to seize power.
The race-biased, them-and-us reporting of Israel/Palestine conflict works both ways. Consider the media coverage of death - how western audiences are invited to feel the agony of Israeli teenagers slaughtered in a disco or two poor 14-year-old Israeli boys bludgeoned to death in a cave, as if they were our own children. Palestinian deaths are rarely made so graphic or memorable: they are anonymous people, counted as numbers, bodies aloft among depersonalized funeral crowds.
Obituaries of murdered Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi described a real man - obnoxious, rabid, but a rounded man with a history, a hinterland, a family. In comparison obituaries of Abu Ali Mustafa, the 63-year-old head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine blown apart at his desk (for whom Zeevi was shot in revenge), mainly concerned the politics of his movement and what his death might presage, with no humanizing idiosyncrasies.
If Israel succeeds in annexing our emotions, it also means Israelis reap a fiercer indignation when they do wrong - because the west feels angrily implicated in their crimes. The Palestinians may be the prime perpetrators, Hamas might be relentless in its wicked fantasy of sweeping Israel into the sea, but maybe our innate racism regards their alien sins as a political problem while emotionally demanding far better behavior of our Israeli cousins. Palestinian terrorists are not right, but the miserable history of mutual blame and victimhood has to end now.
The map of Palestine is pock-marked with new Israeli settlements. The provocative concrete occupying the desert shocks the eye, while the frontline danger to which settlers deliberately expose their children horrifies. In 1998 Sharon urged them on: "Everyone has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we take now will stay ours... everything we don't grab will go to them." Peace Now, the Israeli protest movement, says 25 new settlements have been established since Sharon's February election. Israel seems not to understand the fury these cause, not just among Muslims (though that must be decibels greater) but among Europeans who feel implicated in this mortgaging of future peace. Once there, how are they ever to be removed? By fighting? By Massada-type suicide protests? The festering Palestinian refugee camps must close too.
After Zeevi's death Ariel Sharon declared war on Arafat. Toppling the one faction that at least recognizes Israel and seeks peace (and who would be certainly replaced by Hamas), is a revolutionary strategy designed to create a hyper-crisis to drag in the west. Hamas is as intent as Sharon on cataclysm. Sharon calls Zeevi's murder "our September 11", which it was not. He calls Arafat "our Bin Laden", which he is certainly not. But since the will to peace is not there, only the US can force its indebted client to see sense in time.
Indignation about injustice only flares up when the searchlight of public events falls upon that particular seething corner. Why care about Palestine now and not last year? Because it matters now, like the Taliban matters now. There is a right time for dealing with long-running oppressions - Serbia and Kosovo, or East Timor. Whatever the reason, when the chance comes it has to be seized and Tony Blair must urge the president to act loudly and decisively now, so all can see some good come of this.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001