- JERUSALEM - Rotting bodies
in Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers surrounding Palestinian civilians and militiamen
in the place of Christ's birth, unburied corpses in Ramallah - Israel's
latest war is turning into a human and political tragedy on a vast scale
as the last physical symbols of the Oslo peace agreement are destroyed.
For two days, the suicide bombers have been silent. But the coming weeks
will decide the future of the Holy Land for years to come.
If the Church of the Nativity is now a battleground, what is sacred any
longer? The details are as indistinct as the smoke that still rises close
to Manger Square, but Christian officials speak of at least 100 Palestinian
civilians seeking the sanctuary of the church that marks the spot where
Jesus is believed to have been born in a stable.
With them, it seems, are at least 10 Palestinian militiamen from the Tanzim
movement. The Israeli army has surrounded the church with tanks. According
to the Israelis, the Tanzim men have opened fire on the occupying soldiers.
The Palestinians denied it.
But no one can deny the carnage elsewhere. Take the phone call I received
from Sami Abda yesterday afternoon. On Tuesday, he told me, Israeli soldiers
arrived at his house in the centre of Bethlehem and, despite being warned
by a neighbour that his home was filled with women and children, opened
fire on the building. The Israelis claimed that "terrorists'' were
in the house.
Sami Abda was crying as he spoke to me and these are his exact words: "They
fired 18 bullets through our front door. They hit my mother, Sumaya, and
my brother Jacoub. My mother was 64, my brother was 37. They both fell
to the floor. I called everyone I could to take them to the hospital. But
there was no one to help us. They were dying. When an ambulance came, an
Israeli officer refused permission for it to enter our street. So for 30
hours, we have lived with their bodies. We put the children into the bathroom
so they could not see the corpses. Help us, please.''
But that insistent question - What is sacred? - could be asked again by
anyone who read The Jerusalem Post this week: a whole page of tiny photographs
of the dozens of Israeli civilians torn to pieces by Palestinian suicide
bombers in just one month. One teenage Israeli girl was the same age as
the Palestinian girl who destroyed her life. It was a page of horror and
And, yes, war compounds human tragedy. Even as Sami Abda was trying to
shield his own children from their grandmother's and uncle's blood, a young
female doctor was shot dead inside her home in Jenin as 30 Israeli tanks
smashed into the northern West Bank city to be met by fusillades of gunfire
They invaded Salfat, too, and hundreds of tanks last night invaded the
ancient city of Nablus, with its Palestinian Authority officers and kasbah
of narrow streets.
In Ramallah, the hospital authorities - tired of waiting for Israeli permission
to bury the dead - interred the corpses of 25 Palestinians that had been
decaying in the mortuary for four days.
Palestinians are demanding an inquiry - there will be none, of course -
into the killing of five policemen gunned down by Israeli soldiers in a
tiny Ramallah room. A gun battle, said the Israelis. But the bullets that
killed them all appeared to have been fired at close-range and at least
two of the men were in their mid-50s.
More than 1,000 prisoners have now been taken away by the Israelis and,
except for a dozen or so, no one knows where they have been taken or if
they are alive. A group of several dozen were transported to a Jewish settlement
before being taken away yet again.
So is the State of Israel crushing any hope of a state of Palestine? A
tiny flower of hope came in the cold and rain at the Kalandia checkpoint
outside Ramallah yesterday, when Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs and a few
of the Western protesters, whose courage has gone sadly unrecognised, arrived
to demand peace and an end to Israeli occupation.
- There is life after war. But will there be a Palestine?
Will the world, through this Israeli reoccupation, see Palestine as it
saw Bosnia or Kosovo or East Timor?
Hanan Ashrawi, one of the few credible Palestinian figures, is also one
of the few sane voices in the war. Exhausted, bags below her eyes, keeping
herself awake with scalding coffee, she spoke to me with an air of resignation
"The Oslo agreement is being deconstructed, deliberately," she
said. "Sharon is being obsessively consistent. He always said he wanted
the destruction of the Oslo agreement. This reoccupation was planned many
"But Sharon lacks the ability to assess the ramifications of his actions.
His attempts to destroy Arafat have backfired. He has made Arafat more
legitimate among Palestinians.
"Everyone - the left, the right, the centre, the radicals, the Islamists
- have now rallied behind him. So don't expect anyone to propose another
Could this be true, that Yasser Arafat's weakness is turning into his strength,
that Ariel Sharon's military power is turning into a weakness? For if the
Israeli army is achieving the astonishing success it claims, why does it
not want journalists to witness this great victory? As the Europeans, the
UN Security Council and the Arab League were all deliberating on this turning
point in Middle Eastern history, the world's last colonial war - between
a settlement-planting nation and an occupied people - was entering its