- I had just crossed the northern bridge from Israel over
the Jordan river for a brief visit to Amman when my driver swerved to the
right next to a group of soldiers and headed down a track beside a canal.
"We have to avoid the first village," he said without comment.
A few minutes later, I could see why.
- Black smoke rose from burning tyres on the main road
and crowds of young Jordanian men were stopping cars on the highway. "They
are throwing stones at foreigners and looking for Israelis," said
the driver. You bet they were. And, two hours later, I saw black smoke
cowling into the air over Amman as more demonstrators screamed their hatred
of America and Israel.
- And this, remember, is friendly, pro-Western Jordan,
whose young king moves members of the British Parliament to tears, whose
peace treaty with Israel was hailed - preposterously, of course - as the
start of an economic boom, a new freedom and security for a nation of whom
more than half the population are Palestinian.
- All across the Arab world, local dictators are suppressing
their people's anger. In Jordan, you can even find people who ask not only
why the late King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel. Some of them
are asking another question: what is the point of his son, King Abdullah?
No wonder that the Arab leaders told US Vice-President Dick Cheney last
month that he should forget America's forthcoming screen epic in Iraq and
deal with the Palestinian-Israeli war. Valuable days were lost while Mr
Cheney toured the region in a desperate search for an Arab who would support
an Iraqi blitz. And as happens so often nowadays - incredible though it
seems - the Arabs got it right while the Americans fantasised about the
"axis of evil".
- Perhaps the only man who now has time to work out the
logic of this appalling conflict is the Palestinian leader sitting in his
ill-lit broken office in Ramallah. The one characteristic Yasser Arafat
shares with the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - apart from old age
and decrepitude - is his refusal ever to plan ahead. What he says, what
he does, what he proposes, is decided only at the moment he is forced to
act. This is partly his old guerrilla training. If you don't know what
you are going to do tomorrow, you can be sure that your enemies don't know
either. By contrast, the Israeli army obligingly boasts of its attacks
long in advance, allowing Palestinians - and, of course, journalists -
to be ready for them.
- What the world has so far witnessed - and the Palestinians
spotted this from the start - is that the Israelis are meeting resistance
they never expected. The "few days" they needed to "root
out the network of terror" will now have to extend, according to Israeli
officers, to a month. President George Bush gave Mr Sharon just days to
end his campaign against the Palestinians - the delay before the Secretary
of State leaves for his "urgent" Middle East mission - and everyone
now knows that the Americans will expect Israel to wrap up its assault
by the time Mr Powell arrives later this week.
- So the military logic is simple. This weekend, the Israeli
army has got to batter the Palestinians into submission. And somehow, the
Palestinian forces have got to hang on and keep fighting. If they succeed,
and the Israelis withdraw their tanks without subduing them, Mr Sharon
is forced into a bitter humiliation. If the Israelis do not withdraw at
Mr Powell's demand, then the first serious crack appears in the Sharon-Bush
alliance. In which case, Mr Arafat will win yet again.
- The Israeli army, meanwhile, is proving once more - as
it did in Lebanon - that it is not the "elite" force it's cracked
up to be. It is impossible to dismiss the widespread reports of looting
from homes in Ramallah (not least because that is exactly what Israeli
soldiers used to do in southern Lebanon in 1983); and that brave Israeli
academic, Avi Shlaim, has himself charged Israel with extra-judicial killings
- Watching the Israelis in Ramallah and Bethlehem last
week was a disturbing experience. They were undisciplined, firing like
militiamen - the degree of fire control (or rather the lack of it) exercised
by the average Israeli soldier and Palestinian gunman is almost exactly
the same. Three times I watched Israeli tanks jam themselves into narrow
streets so hopelessly that their crews had to emerge under fire from their
hatches, jump on to the roadside and hand-signal the tank drivers to reverse
- And of course, the innocent go on dying. The Bethlehem
bell-ringer, the woman doctor in Jenin, the 14-year-old girl killed by
Israeli tank fire in Tubas, the mother and son shot dead by Israeli bullets
and left to rot on the floor of their home in Bethlehem beside their still-living
relatives for 30 hours. Journalists and unarmed Western "peace"
protesters who get in the Israeli army's way are gunned down or battoned
or blasted with stun grenades. So much for those gentle souls who say that
Gandhi-like peaceful protest is the way to end the Israeli occupation.
- And what does the Israeli government do when the guns
and grenades don't shut journalists up? Why, last week it threatened legal
action against CNN and the American NBC television chain for not leaving
"closed military areas" of the West Bank. No matter that Israeli
law possesses no legitimacy in the Palestinian areas it occupies - the
world still accepts the Oslo agreements even if Mr Sharon is destroying
them - CNN and NBC meekly refused to make any comment. What happened, one
wonders, to that great American journalist's principle of refusing to tolerate
- But there is another question which has been quietly
forgotten by the world ever since the Israeli assault. If Israel fails
militarily - as it will - then how are the vicious Palestinian suicide
bombers to be stopped? True, there has been a lull after the massacres
of Israelis last month. But even if the suiciders have been temporarily
unbalanced by the Israeli offensive, Israel has created many more potential
"martyrs" for the Palestinians in the bloodbath of the past week.
- The Israelis still refuse to contemplate the arrival
of a foreign protection force - the dream of every Palestinian - but the
time may come when a Nato-American force will have to be contemplated,
to protect Israelis as well as Palestinians. It would not be called a foreign
protectorate, but that is what Israel/Palestine would become, an updated
version of the old, hopeless British mandate.
- In the meantime, be sure the Americans will go on over-arming
the Israelis. Just under two weeks ago, for example, the Americans rolled
out their first S-70A-55 troop-carrying Black Hawk helicopter to be sold
to the Israelis. Israel has purchased 24 of the new machines costing $211m
(£150m) - most of which, of course, will be paid for by the United
States. The logbook of the first of the new Black Hawks was handed over
to the Israeli defence ministry by none other than the former secretary
of state, Alexander Haig - the man who gave Israel's then prime minister,
Menachem Begin, the green light to invade Lebanon in 1982.
- So, coming soon to the Middle East, a new breed of Black
Hawk in the skies over your local West Bank town. Funny, though, that we
haven't heard a thing about all this.
- Unholy War: The Bethlehem bellringer, the doctor, the
mother. The innocent keep on dying