indice generale


The Independent on Sunday 07 April 2002

Unholy War: The Bethlehem bellringer, the doctor, the mother. The innocent keep on dying

At the end of a week when violence in the Middle East conflict has reached new, horrific heights, President Bush has asked Israel to hold its fire. Here, Robert Fisk explains why the call could in fact increase Israeli resolve to crush the Palestinians, and on the following pages we investigate the conflict's history

By Robert Fisk

07 April 2002

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 in Ramallah.

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 their vehicle.

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 censorship?

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.


'Jews may not want to look at this'

Tuesday is Holocaust Day in Israel: and the anniversary of a 1948 massacre that triggered the Palestinian refugee crisis at the heart of today's conflict. Robert Fisk meets an Auschwitz survivor living at the site of the atrocity

By Robert Fisk

07 April 2002

"I will show you my museum," Josef Kleinman says, and scampers into a back room. He returns with a faded old khaki knapsack. "This the shirt the Americans gave me after I was freed from Landsberg on 27 April 1945." It is a crumpled, cheap check shirt whose label is now illegible. Then he takes out a smock of blue and white stripes and a hat with the same stripes running front to back. "This is my uniform as a prisoner of Dachau."

Familiar from every newsreel and from Schindler's List and 100 other Holocaust movies, it is a shock to touch to hold this symbol of a people's destruction. Josef Kleinman watches me as I hold the smock. He understands the shock. On the front of the smock is the number 114986.

Down in the entrance to his block of flats, there are flyers reminding tenants of the forthcoming Holocaust Day. Givat Shaul is a friendly, bright neighbourhood of retired couples, small shops, flats, trees and some elegant old houses of yellow stone. Some of these are in a state of dilapidation, a few are homes. But one or two bear the scars of bullets fired long ago, on 9 April 1948, when another people faced their own catastrophe.

For Givat Shaul used to be called Deir Yassin. And here it was, 54 years ago, that up to 130 Palestinians were massacred by two Jewish militias, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, as the Jews of Palestine fought for the independence of a state called Israel. The slaughter so terrified tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs that they fled their homes en masse 750,000 in all to create the refugee population whose tragedy lies at the heart of the Middle East conflict today.

Back in 1948, Palestinian women were torn to pieces by grenades around the old houses that still exist in Givat Shaul. Two truckloads of Arab prisoners were taken from the village and paraded through the streets of Jerusalem. Later, many of them would be executed in Deir Yassin. Their mass grave is believed to lie beneath a fuel storage depot that now stands at one end of the Jerusalem suburb.

So a visit to Mr Kleinman's home raises a serious moral question. Can one listen to his personal testimony of the greatest crime in modern history and then ask about the tragedy which overwhelmed the Palestinians at this very spot when the eviction of the Arabs of Palestine, terrible though it was, an act of ethnic cleansing in our terms, comes no- where near, statistically or morally, the murder of six million Jews? Does he even know that this year, by an awful irony of history, Holocaust Day and Deir Yassin Day fall on the same date?

Mr Kleinman is no ordinary Holocaust survivor. He was the youngest survivor of Auschwitz and he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the head of Hitler's programme to murder the Jews of Europe. Indeed, Mr Kleinman saw Dr Mengele, the "Angel of Death", who chose children, women, the old and the sick for the gas chambers. At the age of just 14, he watched one day as Mengele arrived on a bicycle and ordered a boy to hammer a plank of wood to a post. Here, for the record, is part of Kleinman's testimony at the Eichmann trial:

"We weren't told what was to happen. We knew. The boys who couldn't pass under the plank would be spared. Those boys whose heads did not reach the plank would be sent to the gas chambers. We all tried to stretch ourselves upwards, to make ourselves taller. But I gave up. I saw that taller boys than me failed to touch the plank with their heads. My brother told me, 'Do you want to live? Yes? Then do something.' My head began to work. I saw some stones. I put them in my shoes, and this made me taller. But I couldn't stand at attention on the stones, they were killing me."

Mr Kleinman's brother, Shlomo, tore his hat in half and Josef stuffed part of it into his shoes. He was still too short. But he managed to "infiltrate" into the group who had passed the test. The remainder of the boys a thousand in all were gassed. Mengele, Josef Kleinman remembers, chose Jewish holidays for the mass killing of Jewish children. Mr Kleinman's parents, Meir and Rachel, and his sister had been sent directly to the gas chambers when the family arrived at Auschwitz from the Carpathian mountains, in what is now Ukraine. He survived, along with his brother who today, a carpenter like Josef, lives a few hundred yards away in the same suburb of Givat Shaul/Deir Yassin. Josef survived Dachau and the gruelling labour of building a massive bunker for Hitler's secret factory, constructed for the production of Germany's new Messerschmitt ME262 jet fighter aircraft.

After his liberation by the Americans, Josef Kleinman made his way to Italy and then to a small boat which put him aboard a ship for Palestine, carrying illegal Jewish immigrants who were to try to enter the territory of the dying British mandate. He could carry only a few possessions. He chose to put his Dachau uniform in his bag he would not forget what happened to him.

Turned back by the British, he spent six months in the Famagusta camp on Cyprus, eventually ending up in the immigrants' camp at Atlit in Palestine. He arrived in Jerusalem on 15 March 1947, and was there when Israel's war of independence broke out. He fought in that war but not at Deir Yassin. I gently mention the name. Both Josef Kleinman and his wife Haya nod at once.

"There are things which have been written that were wrong about Deir Yassin," he said. "I was in Jerusalem and I saw the two truckloads of prisoners that came from here. Some reports say Arabs were killed, others that they were not. Not all the people were killed. There is much propaganda. I do not know. The Arabs killed their Jewish prisoners. There didn't have to be much fighting for the Arabs to leave."

But when he saw those Arabs leaving, did they not, for Mr Kleinman, provide any kind of parallel however faint, given the numerically far greater and infinitely bloodier disaster that overtook the Jews of his own life? He thinks about this for a while. He did not see many Arab refugees, he said. It was his wife Haya who replied. "I think that after what happened to him which was so dreadful that everything else in the world seemed less important. You have to understand that Josef lives in that time, in the time of the Shoah (Holocaust). Of the 29,000 Jews brought to Dachau from other camps, most of them from Auschwitz, 15,000 died."

But is it just about the enormity of one crime and its statistical comparison to the exodus of Palestinians in 1948? A group of Jews, Muslims and Christians are campaigning for Deir Yassin to be remembered even now, at the height of the latest war in what was Palestine. In London today, the killings at Deir Yassin will be remembered at St John's Wood Church at 6pm. They will be commemorated, too, in Washington and Melbourne and in Jerusalem. As the organisers say, "many Jews may not want to look at this, fearing that the magnitude of their tragedy may be diminished. For Palestinians there is always the fear that, as often before, the Holocaust may be used to justify their own suffering".

The Kleinmans do not know of this commemoration nor of the organisation's plans for a memorial to the Palestinian dead in their little suburb of Givat Shaul. Josef Kleinman won't talk about the bloodbath in Israel/Palestine today. But he admits he's "on the right" and voted for Ariel Sharon. "Is there any other man?" he asks.