This is a story about lies, bias, hatred and death. It's about our inability -- after more than half a century -- to understand the injustice of the Middle East. It's about a part of the world where it seems quite natural, after repeatedly watching on television the funeral of 11-year-old Sami Abu Jezar -- who died two days after being shot through the forehead by Israeli soldiers -- for a crowd to kick two Israeli plainclothes agents to death. It's about a nation that claims "purity of arms" but fires missiles at civilian apartment blocks and then claims it is "restoring order". It's about people who are so enraged by the killing of almost a hundred Palestinians that they try to blow up an entire American warship.
It's as simple as that. When I walked into the local photocopy shop yesterday afternoon, the boys there greeted me with ecstatic smiles. "Did you hear that an American ship has been attacked?" one of them asked. "There are Americans dead." All I saw around the room were smiles. In a corner, on a small television screen, an Israeli Apache aircraft was firing a missile at Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Gaza.
Seven years ago, CNN showed us the Israeli prime minister shaking Yasser Arafat by the hand, live on the White House lawn. Now, live from Gaza, we watch a pilot carrying out an order from the Israeli prime minister to kill Arafat by bombing his headquarters.
As usual last night, the television news broadcasts -- those most obsequious and deforming of information dispensers -- were diverting our minds from the truth. They did not ask why the Palestinians should have lynched two Israeli undercover men. Instead, they asked why Palestinian police had not protected them. They did not ask why a suicide bomber in a rubber boat should have bombed the USS Cole.
Instead, they asked who he was, who he worked for, and they interviewed Pentagon officials who denounced "terrorism". Always the "who" or the "what"; never the "why".
It is of course possible that Osama bin Laden, one of the more recent American hate figures, could have inspired -- by sermons rather than direct instruction -- the attack on the USS Cole. Bin Laden's family originally came from Yemen. And it was Yemen that demanded the right earlier this week to fly arms direct to the Palestinians of the occupied territories -- provoked, it seems, by slow-motion footage of yet another boy, a 12-year-old, dying on top of his father in Gaza after being shot by the Israelis. Yet many of the attacks on Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon were carried out by young men, unconnected with the corrupt Arab political lite but enraged by the injustice of their lot. Maybe it was the same in Yemen.
When Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo agreement seven years ago, only a very few asked how soon this raddled, flawed, hopeless "peace" would collapse. I thought it would end in violence because the Palestinians were being forced by Americans and Israelis to sign a peace that would give them neither a state nor an end to Jewish settlements on Arab land, nor a capital in Arab east Jerusalem.
I wrote that Arafat had been turned from "super-terrorist" into a "super-statesman" but could easily be turned into a "super-terrorist" again. And so it came to pass. Yesterday, the Israeli spokesman Avi Pasner shared a BBC interview with me -- and called Arafat a "terrorist".
Alas, none of it was surprising -- none save our continued inability to grasp what happens when a whole society is pressure-cooked to the point of explosion. A Pentagon official was saying last night the US government was trying to find out if the attack on the USS Cole was "related" to "violence" in the Middle East. Come again?
Related? Violence? Who can doubt that the attempt to sink the Cole and all her 360 American crew was directed at a nation now held responsible for Israel's killing of scores of Palestinian civilians? The United States -- despite all the claptrap from Madeleine Albright about "honest brokers" -- is Israel's ally.
Ever since Arafat tried to leave the US ambassador's residence in Paris two weeks ago, the Palestinians have placed this responsibility on America's shoulders. If the US wants to go on supporting an ally that shoots down Palestinians in the streets of the occupied territories, then the United States will be held to account. And will pay for it.
No, of course this does not excuse the bloodthirsty killing of armed Israeli agents or the desecration of the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, or, indeed, the murder of Jewish settlers. But the cruelty of the Palestinians can be explained by the cruelty of the Israelis. The death toll among Palestinians now is almost exactly equal to that at Qana in 1996 when Israeli gunners butchered 106 Lebanese civilians. We called it a massacre. The Israelis said it was a mistake. True, it's scarcely 5 per cent of the death toll at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, when Israel's militia allies killed up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians. We called that a massacre. Israel said this, too, was a mistake. Like they called the death of two 12-year-old children and a seven-year-old child and Sami Abu Jezar a mistake.
And yesterday -- with no institutional memory to guide them -- journalists were taking at face value Israel's extraordinary claim that they fired "only at military targets", that the civilian population of Gaza had been "told to evacuate" the areas to be bombed. Do I not seem to remember how the Israelis said in 1982 that in Lebanon they "only fired at military targets" -- and left more than 17,000 civilians dead in two months? Do I not recall that the Israelis ordered the villagers of Mansouri to "evacuate" before they shelled it in 1996, then attacked their cars on the road and fired a missile into the back of an ambulance, killing four children and three women -- the missile made, of course, by the Boeing company of America?
And was not the CIA supposed to be training the Palestinian policemen now being derided by Mr Pasner as "terrorists" (his own country having personally vetted which of them should carry arms)?
And was not the United States the guarantor and broker of the disastrous Oslo agreement? So is it really surprising that the Palestinians -- indeed, the Arabs -- blame the United States for the tragedy unfolding in the Holy Land?
And is it any less surprising that the Israelis have now turned on the man w ith whom they thought they would conclude a peace that would turn "Palestine" into a Bantustan? The man who was supposed to "control" the Palestinians, who was supposed to lock up opponents of the "peace process" -- whether they be peaceful or violent -- is not doing what he was told. He walked out of Camp David because it was a surrender too far. So President Clinton blamed him for the conference's failure -- on Israeli television, of all places -- and ordered Arafat not to declare a state. Or else.
And now, when two US presidential contenders -- Messrs Bush and Gore -- try to out-do each other in their love and loyalty for Israel, can America comprehend what is happening?
I suppose it's the same old story. The Israelis only want peace. The unruly, riotous, murderous Palestinians -- totally to blame for 95 of their own deaths -- understand only violence.
That's what Israel's military spokesman said last night. Force, he said, "will be the only language they understand". Which is about as near to a declaration of war as you can get.