The tragedy of an epic injustice that is at the root of Bush's and Blair's threats of war

16 September 2002

Last October, in the early hours of the morning, a young expectant mother called Fatima Abed-Rabo awoke with intense labour pains; and she and her husband Nasser set out in a friend's car for the hospital in Bethlehem, in Israeli occupied Palestine.

The couple had been trying for a second child for three years and had undergone fertility treatment. "The news of the pregnancy had made us so happy," said Nasser, "that we celebrated by replacing the tin sheeting on our home with a concrete roof."

The couple were stopped at the Israeli military roadblock just outside their village. The soldiers turned them back, even though Fatima was now haemorrhaging. They got a taxi, hoping that would be allowed through. Again, they were turned back. No explanation was given; one soldier mimicked Fatima's moans.

Fatima gave birth to her baby in the taxi. She remembers the soldiers hurling her husband's ID into the blood on the floor.

"We cut the umbilical cord with a razor blade," she said. "My husband wrapped the tiny boy in his jacket, and eventually one of his relatives found a back route."

Barely three pounds in weight, blue and in a critical condition, the baby was dead by the time they arrived at the hospital.

We don't know why they did this to us," she told me in my film on ITV tonight. "It wasn't personal. This is how they treat all Palestinians. I'm sorry to say this, but they would rather help an animal than an Arab."

STORIES like Fatima's are rarely news in Britain, yet they are typical of the everyday treatment of the Palestinians. Human rights groups run by Israelis have recorded hundreds of instances of pregnant and seriously ill Palestinians being turned back at Israeli checkpoints, including ambulances.

"We don't know how many have died like this," said a spokeswoman for the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, "because many people don't even bother to set out for hospital, knowing the soldiers will stop them. "These people offer no threat to Israel. Those who do, like the suicide bombers, of course never go through roadblocks, which exist only to control, subjugate and humiliate ordinary people. It is like a routine terrorism."

Fatima's remark about being treated worse than an animal is apposite. It is always easier to harm or kill people who, in the eyes of the powerful, do not matter: be it in Afghanistan or occupied Palestine.

Israeli soldiers enforcing the illegal occupation of Palestinian land can cause the death of babies and other innocents, or kill them outright, and words such as murder and terrorism are almost never used. The same immunity has been enjoyed by those politicians who design and permit this "routine terrorism," which is the product of a form of colonialism.

Indeed, to understand both the roots and the double standards of Bush's "war on terror," whose propaganda the Israeli regime of Ariel Sharon has adopted almost word for word, you need to come to Palestine, where one of the longest military occupations in modern times is now in its 36th year.

When I was passing through Israeli checkpoints last May, there were several of these routine murders. A nurse was one of them. Nine-tenths of Palestinians killed by the Israelis are civilians; 45 per cent are teenagers and children. In Gaza, five years ago, an amusement park opened beside the sea. It was the only one in a deeply impoverished place populated mainly by refugees whose families were forced off their land or out of their villages by the Israelis.

"At first, it was very successful," said Walid Al Dirawi, who looks after the deserted ruin of rusting rides and dodgem cars. "Then the shooting started from across the road. The Israeli settlers and soldiers shot it up every weekend, and of course people stayed away." Behind the dodgems is a wall pock-marked with bullet holes, like a shooting gallery.

THE "settlers" are mostly religious Israelis or immigrants from Russia, America and elsewhere, who are subsidised by the government to live in what are colonial fortresses in the midst of Palestinian communities, guarded by the Israeli army.

They have no right to be there under international law, and the United Nations says they should get out. Their justification is usually Biblical.

For the Israeli state, they serve a practical purpose; they occupy and encroach upon more and more Palestinian land, while allowing the military to control the Palestinians with more and more roadblocks and restrictions. Many Palestinian villages are surrounded by barbed wire, and people require a special permit even to travel to the next one. Gaza, where 800,000 are trapped, is surrounded by an electrified fence.

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu came here recently, he said: "The way the Palestinians are treated is the way we were treated in apartheid South Africa."

Trapped by checkpoints and arbitrary curfews the Palestinian economy is in ruins. According to a US government survey, more than half of all Palestinian children suffer from malnutrition, including chronic malnutrition defined as stunted growth.

People struggle to live on less than ?1 a day. One of the most moving sights I have seen are the kites that reach for the sky every dusk, displaying the colours of the Palestinian flag, flown by terribly thin children from their open prison in refugee camps.

Cutting a swathe through this poverty and despair are the Israeli "settlements": surreal, middle class suburbs that are armed fortresses with watchtowers. From here, the "settlers" shot up the amusement park. I visited one of these fortresses. What struck me was the lushness: the constant sound of running water: sprinklers nourishing hothouse crops and manicured gardens. On the other side of what looks like the Berlin Wall, in impoverished Gaza, standpipes trickle and often run dry.

These illegal, provocative enclaves, and their surrounding security areas, control almost 42 per cent of occupied Palestine - a fact that, on its own, makes mockery of the popular myth that two years ago the Israelis made a "generous" offer to return 90 per cent of the occupied territories, which the Palestinian Authority rejected.

The truth is very different. Following peace negotiations in America in 2000, President Clinton's National Security Adviser Robert Malley, who was there with Clinton, revealed that, although the Palestinians rejected certain Israeli proposals, "it could also be said that Israel rejected the unprecedented two-state solution put to them by the Palestinians, including the following provisions: a state of Israel incorporating some land captured in 1967 and including a very large majority of its settlers; the largest Jewish Jerusalem in the city's history (and) security guaranteed by a US-led international presence."

Shortly after it was founded in 1948, Israel controlled, mostly as a result of a United Nations partition and partly by force, a total of 78 per cent of historic Palestine. The Palestinians, who were the majority, fled in an orchestrated campaign of fear and terror, or they were expelled. These days, this would be known as "ethnic cleansing".

When he retired, General Moshe Dayan, Israel's military hero, said: "Jewish places were built in the place of Arab villages. There is not one single place in the country that did not have a former Arab population."

DURING the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis occupied the remaining 22 per cent of Palestine. Today, the Palestinians, seeking to form their own independent state, want only that 22 per cent back.

Little of this background is known or understood widely in Britain, even though the region is constantly in the news. Last May, the Glasgow University Media Group, famous for its pioneering media analysis, published a study that found TV viewers in particular were rarely told that Palestinians were the victims of an illegal and brutal military occupation. Only nine per cent of those interviewed were aware that the Israelis were the occupiers. For years, representing the Israelis as oppressors has been a taboo with always the threat of slurs of anti-Semitism (a bleak irony, as Palestinians are Semites, too).

This has been manipulated by the Israeli government and its foreign lobbies, especially in the United States where the lobby commands most of the Congress and the White House.

Many Israelis, like many Jews in Britain and other counties, condemn this intimidation, just as they condemn the occupation and are fearful of its deeply corrupting effect on Israeli society. Recently, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, said he had long believed that Israel should give back the Occupied Territories. When I was in Israel in May, some 50,000 Israelis crowded central Tel Aviv, demanding that the government of Ariel Sharon made peace.

They are still a minority. The Palestinian suicide bombers and their mass murder of innocents have hardened Israeli public opinion, but what is seldom reported is that they are a relatively recent phenomenon.

For much of their resistance, the Palestinians have fought back courageously with slingshots - against a modern army, equipped with tanks, fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships.

Britain has a historic responsibility towards the Palestinians. The 1917 "Balfour Declaration" promised Jews a homeland provided it would not prejudice the rights of the non-Jewish communities. The British famously reneged on this. Britain administered the League of Nations" Mandate for Palestine until the partition that created Israel in 1948, which the Palestinians call al-Nakba, "the catastrophe."

AS a permanent member of the UN Security Council, successive British governments have pledged to support the resolutions that have called upon Israel to end its occupation.

In the General Assembly, there have been an estimated 450 resolutions calling, in one form or another, for justice for the Palestinians. This is a world record. No country has incurred the opprobrium of the world community as often as Israel and no country has been excused its "rogue" behaviour so consistently, thanks to its backer, America.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, it was ordered to withdraw by the United Nations Security Council. When the Iraqis failed to comply, they were attacked with such force that tens of thousands were slaughtered. When Israel seized the West Bank of the Jordan and Gaza, it was ordered to withdraw by the same UN Security council. That was 35 years ago, and the occupation goes on.

On the contrary, Israel has since been rewarded with billions of dollars worth of aid and armaments, principally by the United States, which has helped it develop nuclear weapons and other so-called weapons of mass destruction.

Britain has nurtured the hypocrisy that reached its apogee in the United Nations General Assembly last week when George Bush, speaking and postulating like a Mafia don, and with the full support of Tony Blair, threatened the very existence of the UN unless it provided him with a figleaf from behind which he could attack Iraq.

But it was Israel's flouting of UN resolutions on Palestine that was the spectre in the General Assembly. Every delegate knew it, especially the British who are fully aware of the enduring destabilising effect of the illegal occupation.

They also know that it is being intensified by Ariel Sharon, a man whom a commission of his own parliament found indirectly but "personally responsible" for the massacre of more than 800 Palestinians in 1982 and who once boasted: "They (the Arabs) have the numbers. We have the matches."

With Bush and Blair about to ignite another war in the Middle East, justice for the Palestinians remains key to peace.

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