If only I could teach them what I have learnt

<em>Middle East Crisis</em> - Tim Lambon, in the West Bank, watches the Israeli soldiers and sees ch

It is hard to hold the camera steady when a Merkava tank lets rip with a high-explosive round. In a small street of stone buildings, the shock wave takes the lens and, try as you might, in an instant it jerks upward. It was equally hard to keep a rifle steady when the fear and adrenalin of being dropped into a firefight was pumping through the blood stream. The kick from the weapon, as two rounds blasted towards an unseen enemy, forced the sweat into my eyes, and then I was up, moving and rolling.

Twenty years separate these two experiences. Twenty years, a lot of miles and too many wars ever to believe things can be worked out by fighting. I was a field intelligence officer in the Rhodesian security forces during a small and bloody war in what is now Zimbabwe. Today, I am a journalist cameraman covering my umpteenth war, this one between the Israelis and Palestinians. I put down my rifle and picked up a camera, but the road has changed my mind.

What I thought of as reasonable, I now doubt. What I believed, I now cannot justify. I've spent the past week in the Palestinian territories, as the Israeli army, with more sophisticated weapons than we had, has done what we used to do. A "cordon and search" operation. Identify the centre of enemy activity. Surround it, with one gun facing in and one facing out. Sweep through with infantry, searching every building from basement to rafters. Collect weapons, explosives and any documents you can find. Arbitrarily arrest and interrogate anyone suspected of being the enemy. At the first sign of resistance, shoot first and ask questions later. Much later.

As I watched the Israeli "Operation Building Walls" proceed, I saw my former incarnation in horrifying clarity. I was a young officer. There was an enemy and there were the people among whom they moved. The people who, through fear or complicity, would not give us any information. Add to that, arrogance and institutionalised racism, and I acted much the same as the young Israeli soldiers are doing. I used to justify my actions in much the same way as the Israelis justify their present incursions.

"We have to clean out the infrastructure of terrorism that has grown under Arafat's jurisdiction," I was told by Dore Gold, from the office of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon. "Then we'll be able to move from the current situation to a period of quiet and the achievement of a political solution."

But either he has forgotten or he chooses not to remember that you don't win a terrorist war until you kill one more than they do, and that, by then, you're the terrorist. By that reckoning, Israel should be well on its way to joining George Bush's "axis of evil", because the kill ratio is almost four to one against the Palestinians.

It is said that Ian Smith's Rhodesian regime failed because, in the end, it believed its own propaganda, losing sight of the reality prevailing in the world after the Second World War. We called the African nationalist guerrillas "terrorists", and couched our rhetoric in terms of the cold war. Ariel Sharon and his spokesmen have adopted the gospel of the war on terror, as proclaimed by the Bush administration.

"There will never be peace so long as there is terror, and all freedom-loving nations must fight terror," Bush said recently. "I'd like to see Chairman Arafat denounce the terrorist activities that are taking place, the constant attacks."

"We must fight this terrorism in an uncompromising war to uproot these savages, to dismantle their infrastructure . . . Arafat is the head of a coalition of terrorism . . ." declared Sharon in an echo of his sponsor.

The phrases are constantly repeated. After 11 September, the Americans have found a focus for their unipolar world and the Israelis have found an excuse really to have a go at their long-distrusted neighbours. I accepted as reasonable a similar line of thinking in my past, only to find out I was wrong. I believed there was a Rhodesian nation. That "we" could run the place better than "them". I thereby conveniently ignored that "they" should have a right to make their own mistakes on the way to what they saw as "nationhood". So, too, the Israelis fail to see the Palestinians as people with aspirations, capable of eventually governing themselves in peace and freedom.

"You can see the Palestinian villages . . . They're the ones in grey concrete that are never painted or finished," Reveka Goldschmidt explained. "We worked hard, and look at this beautiful big house we've built in just 18 years." Reveka is an English teacher in the illegal settlements of the Katif Bloc in the Gaza Strip. She sounded like me when I said I didn't want to live in a bankrupt country like Zambia. I eventually found out that it doesn't matter if an African city street is full of litter or if the Palestinians never finish their houses, as long as those throwing the litter in the street or choosing not to finish a building are free to do just that - choose.

It took many years and much inquiry before, on returning from 120 days in Sarajevo during the siege, I stripped the Rhodesian paraphernalia from my study and packed it away. It was history, but not part of me any more.

Last week, I met a man who reached his moment of realisation while still in the midst of Israel's militaristic milieu. I now say glibly that if the call-up papers I received in 1976 arrived today, I'd either leave the country (Rhodesia as was) or be sent to prison as a conscientious objector. Addi Eilat did just that. He served 28 days in Jail No 6 near Haifa last year for failing to obey a command. The command was to serve in the occupied territories. He related how, last year, while on roadblock duty in the West Bank, the army asked if there was anything his platoon needed. The soldiers said some washing water would be nice, so the army sent along a digger, which fractured a pipe in trying to provide water for them. It was the water main to a Palestinian village of more than 5,000 people. It was shut off for five days because ten Israelis had asked for the luxury of a wash while on duty.

"Then I realised how wrong this all was," Addi said. "I just decided, right there, that I wasn't going to do this any more. It was humiliation, and we just don't care about the Palestinians, they're not people." But Addi is in the minority. When Sharon announced the call-up of 20,000 reservists to mount Operation Building Walls, the response was almost 100 per cent. Likewise in Rhodesia, we stoically went when the call came, never bothering to question the truth of the accepted wisdom that we were under threat.

The Israelis certainly believe they are under threat, confirmed by the terrible consequences of every suicide bomber that gets through. The resulting deaths of children and the elderly, men and women, have sent this society, which sees itself as European and sophisticated, running for its guns. But what they don't see is that aggression is no cure. It will only be through negotiation that the extremists are disarmed.

"Barak offered Arafat more than most Israelis were prepared to give, and he threw it in our faces, he continued with his terror," said Dore Gold. "More than most Israelis were prepared to give" was less than most Palestinians were prepared to accept. The three main issues of the division of Jerusalem, the right of refugees to return and the removal of illegal settlements had not been fully addressed.

In 1979, the Smith regime in Rhodesia engineered the elections won by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, but from which the guerrilla leaders abstained. Many whites thought they had given more than they should. Eventually, they found out the people wanted more than that, a problem rectified by the Lancaster House agreement which brought Robert Mugabe to power in a vote that bewildered the colonials. Eventually, but unfortunately only after much more bloodletting, the Israelis will realise that this stops only when you talk.

I smelled again the rank odour of hot grease and cordite. In the lanes of Ramallah, I saw the blank faces of the Palestinian women, shocked beside their homes through which soldiers had punched holes to avoid snipers. I was in the villages of Zimunya, Chitakatira and Cashel once again. It could have been me by a mistake of birth. It was me by a mistake of birth. But it is me after 22 years of other people's wars, knowing that this one will not be won by rooting out the infrastructure of terror in a "cordon and search" operation.

Tim Lambon works for ITN's Channel 4 News