Will the murders ever stop?

<em>Middle East Crisis</em>

The regimes that rule Iran, Iraq and North Korea have not strayed beyond their own national borders for a decade or more. However odious and cruel their treatment of their own peoples, they do not (Saddam Hussein partially excepted) have a record of slaughtering overseas civilians in large numbers. Despite suspicions, there is no certain proof that they possess weapons of mass destruction. Israel, on the other hand, has occupied foreign territory for nearly 20 years. Its prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was held "personally responsible" by his own country's parliament for the massacre of several thousand Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps in 1982 (Mr Sharon was then an Israeli general). And it is beyond dispute that Israel has nuclear weapons, at least.

So who truly deserves the title of "terrorist state" and inclusion in President Bush's "axis of evil"? To state the question is to expose the absurdity of such rhetorical categories. Israel is after all a liberal democracy; if it is a terrorist state, its people, who elected Ariel Sharon in full knowledge of his record and his attitudes towards Palestinians, must be a terrorist people. Therein lies the paradox: democracy, we think, brings peace and moderation and it is perfectly true that, in Israel, unlike in Iraq, say, voices that dissent from the regime's policies can be heard loud and clear. But as Northern Ireland shows, the people's voice, democratically expressed, can be every bit as bigoted and fanatical as the rantings of a dictator; and it can be all the more so because it is so convinced of its own righteousness, so secure in its collective strength. If democracy were ever to be established in Arab countries, the likelihood is that they would be more, not less, aggressive towards Israel.

The only logical end of present Israeli policy is the complete re-occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Even Mr Sharon, who is not noted for calm, rational thinking, must see that virtually to imprison Yasser Arafat and to attack local police stations is to remove from the Palestinian authorities what little power or desire they have to restrain the young bombers. He must also see that to send tanks on to the streets of Ramallah and Bethlehem and more or less arbitrarily to seize large numbers of young men can only increase the numbers willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to take a few Israelis with them. And Mr Sharon must surely realise that there is no obvious alternative to Mr Arafat. Only by ruling the Palestinian areas themselves, under the most repressive conditions imaginable and with utter ruthlessness, can the Israelis hope to stop the endless rise in suicide missions. No doubt some missions would still succeed; no doubt too northern Israel would again come under attack from groups in Lebanon. But, most Israelis will feel, almost anything is preferable to having nightclubs in Tel Aviv blown up virtually every Saturday night without warning.

A dreadful outcome? Yes; but possibly better than an indefinite continuance of the present cycle of murders, which merely drives the mass of Israelis further to the extremes. Almost certainly, the Israelis would not have the stomach for indefinite repression on the scale required; liberal democracies, once the passions have cooled, rarely do. Quite soon, the Israelis would want to start a new peace process; and without the pressures of so many suicide bombings within their borders, the Israeli doves would have a chance of outflanking the Zionist fanatics.

For the west, there is an important lesson. The Middle East must work out its own destiny. The US and Britain must end their military, financial and diplomatic support for Israel. They must be ready to guarantee a peace settlement with all the resources at their disposal.

But that settlement can be made only by the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.

Death and deference

What kind of country are we? Over the Easter holiday, some dozens of people died horrifically in the Middle East. But it was not their deaths, nor the coverage of them, that led to commemorative newspaper supplements and national hand-wringing. It was the death of a 101-year-old woman. She may have done her duty (see A C Grayling); she may have symbolised something important and intangible to an older generation of Britons. But once she had peacefully expired, very little remained to be said; indeed, the unfortunate Peter Sissons, fronting the BBC news, was widely criticised for his manful efforts to find something that could be said. It is apparently obscene to ask some quaintly titled and haughty aristocrat for details of who was present at the Queen Mother's death. It is apparently acceptable for cameras to linger briefly on the dead bodies on the streets of Ramallah before passing on to the football results.

One must concede that our columnist Amanda Platell (page 24) has a point. The BBC is a precious institution; the Queen Mother's death was a long-anticipated event. It should have sorted its act sufficiently to avoid leaving an open goal for the Daily Mail and other hostile papers. But as it happens, the BBC had a perfect opportunity to satisfy both sides - or, at least, to pre-empt its opponents. Its coverage of significant world events at holiday periods (notably Romania's Christmas revolution of 1990) has always been a disgrace, apparently based on the view that a nation satiated with plum pudding and chocolate eggs loses the use of its brain cells. On this occasion, however, it could have cancelled its normal schedules - or at least greatly extended its news programmes - and, failing to find anything further to say about a perfectly ordinary death, have taken us to Bethlehem for extended coverage of extraordinary events. The specially sepulchral tones and dark clothes that BBC reporters and presenters adopt for royal deaths could have been seamlessly transferred to the deaths of young men and women in the Middle East. Could anybody then have accused the BBC of frivolity and lack of respect? Or could anybody of the opposite persuasion have accused it of excessive deference?

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