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A Speech Laced With Obsessions and Little Else

5 April 2002

Ariel Sharon could not have done better. The heaping of blame upon an occupied people, the obsessive use of the word terror by my rough count there were 50 references in just 10 minutes and the brief, frightened remarks about "occupation" and (one mention only) to Jewish settlements and the need for Israeli "compassion" at the end were proof enough that President Bush had totally failed to understand the tragedy he is supposedly trying to solve.

The mugger became the victim and the victim became the mugger. What, I wonder, is the exact distance between the Rose Garden and Bethlehem? So the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is traveling to "the region" next week. Next week? Why not now?

But of course, the White House, which according to the Israeli press has repeatedly been asking Mr Sharon how long he intends to reoccupy the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, is to give the Israeli Prime Minister more time to finish his invasion, destroy the Palestinian infrastructure and dismantle the Palestinian Authority.

The speech was laced with all the "war on terror" obsessions: Iraq as a sponsor of terror for donating money to a family of Palestinian "martyrs", and Syria for not making up its mind if it is "for or against terror".

The European Union, fearful of rising oil prices and their effect on the eurozone economy, had earlier dispatched a mission to Israel; with typical contempt, Mr Sharon told its members they could not visit Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. The delegation, which had earlier announced that the Americans had failed in their mission as peacemaker in the Middle East, simply packed up and left Tel Aviv within hours.

But will Mr Powell do any better? The dollar has fallen against world currencies because of the Middle East crisis as good a reason as any for Mr Bush to act and the possible restrictions on Middle East oil production, though more damaging to Europe, must have helped to prompt the President's decision to dispatch Mr Powell.

The Palestinian suicide bombings, however, were the core of Mr Bush's address. He talked of the 18-year-old Palestinian girl who blew herself up and killed a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the Jewish state's "dream" of peace with its neighbors."Terror must be stopped ... no nation can negotiate with terrorists ... leaderships not terror ... you're either with the civilized world or you're with the terrorists ... all in the Middle East ... must move in word and deed against terrorists ... I call on the Palestinian Authority to do everything in their power to stop terrorist activities." Arafat had agreed to control "terrorism" "he failed'.' The reoccupation of the West Bank was a "temporary measure", Mr Bush announced, trusting the word of the Israeli occupiers. "Suicide bombing missions could well blow up the only hope of a Palestinian state."

On it went, 11 September-speak applied to the Middle East. Israel's enemies must be eliminated Al Aqsa, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah, which yesterday beat up a UN observer on the Lebanese border in the most dangerous incident of its kind since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. The whole Bush speech revolved around Israel's well-being, with scarcely three minutes devoted to the Palestinians and their 35 years under occupation. Israel should, Mr Bush decided, show a "respect" for and "concern" for the Palestinian people.

There was some ritual mention of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war but which Mr Sharon has already said he cannot accept, and an appeal to halt settlement building. But Jewish settlements are still being built, at an ever-faster rate, on Palestinian land.

Only a heart of stone could not respond to the suffering of those Israeli families whose loved ones have been so wickedly cut down by the Palestinian suicide bombers. But where was Mr Bush's compassion for the vastly greater number of Palestinians who have been killed by the Israelis over the past 19 months, or his condemnation of Israel's death squads, house demolition and land theft? They simply didn't exist in the Bush speech.

The money for "martyrs" does not, of course, only go to the kin of suicide bombers it goes to families of all those killed by Israelis, most of whom have been struck down by American-made weapons. Certainly, America has never offered to make reparations for the innocents killed by the air-to-ground missiles and shells it has sold to Israel.

Far more instructive than the Bush speech was the measured, fair way in which Terje Larson, the UN's special Middle East envoy, and Nigel Roberts, the local director of the World Bank, tried to describe the tragedy. In a short press conference they appealed to both sides to end violence and respect international law and cited Israel as well as the Palestinians for breaking it. The so-called Israeli "closed military areas" were, Mr Larson said, "illegitimate and in direct violation of the [Oslo] Agreements". Mr Roberts talked of the surge in violence as a threat that could "consign to history the unique opportunity for reconciliation".

But "closed military areas" achieved another Israeli victory over the Western television satellite stations. Yesterday, the BBC, Sky and CNN, with their own crews largely prevented from filming in the reoccupied Palestinian cities, all ran footage of the Bethlehem battle taken by Israeli soldiers. Rather than refuse to use the tape unless their own crews were permitted access to the carnage, the three channels all dutifully used the film taken by the army of occupation. Another milestone in the collapse of journalism in the Middle East. But not so serious as the collapse of America's peace-making.

Robert Fisk
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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