Essay

God wills it! The bitter fruits of fundamentalism

In any case history, insofar as it keeps alive the
memory of past wrongs, is not helpful for the future.

– Antony Black, Muslim Political Thought, 2001

PAINFUL TO LOOK at, impossible to look away – the Holy Land of half humanity holds us all in an agonising grip. The distraction of Iraq has barely slowed our daily dose of torn-up roadmaps, bombs, bullets and bulldozers, shrill charge and countercharge. What is the curse on that small corner of the world, where three closely related faiths endlessly invoke peace? Was there a fork in the road, and if so, where was it and when? The stakes go far beyond the Middle East – threatening us all with militant fundamentalism, an end to the toleration that has long kept religion and reason away from each other's throats and has thus preserved our fragile civilisation. In five wars there, months of travel and a mountain of reading, I have wrestled with these questions, hoping at least to glimpse a way forward. This is an account of that long search.

I first set foot in Israel at Lod Airport, the former Arab village of Lydda, and long before that, a centre of Jewish learning, just outside Tel Aviv on June 6, 1967, more than half a biblical lifetime ago, when I came to report my first war in the Middle East. Officially, Lod had closed the day before while Israeli fighter-bombers methodically destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground. Unofficially, a few El Al strays, stranded by the sudden outbreak of a long-threatened war, were still braving the interception that never came. Some journalists talked their way onto the last flight from Cyprus; among them two reporters, Colin Simpson and myself, and two photographers, Don McCullin and Neil Libbert, then all of The Sunday Times, London. In the deserted arrival hall we split up, Simpson and McCullin to Jerusalem, the newsworthiest of the likely battlefields, Libbert and I to the Gaza Strip and Sinai, both held by Israel's strongest enemy, Egypt. We were to see the prototype of many wars to come – a fast high-tech victory over an inept Third-World enemy, a hated occupation, a spiral of violence with no end in sight. So long ago, so quickly won, the Six-Day War still goes on.

Libbert and I went to war in style, by taxi. Glad of any fare, our driver, Gershon Gari, dropped by his home to pick up his revolver, and we sped south. The Israeli Army we overtook was an amazing sight. I wrote in The Sunday Times of June 11, 1967: "Some of them wear uniforms and steel helmets, while others have odds and ends of civilian clothing and Jewish skullcaps. Half the transport is improvised. Officers drive their private cars, smeared with mud to make crude but effective desert camouflage.

"The men arrive in Tel Aviv buses with signs like 'The Cairo Express' – and the same buses bring the prisoners back. The officers appear to be European Jews, no doubt because of their superior education. Orders are given in Hebrew, but the troops talk together in German, Yiddish, French, Romanian, Polish and just about every language of Europe. The International Brigades in Spain, 1936, must have been the nearest thing to this." Or, I reflected, perhaps the biblical Children of Israel, once again on the move.

The next two days are a blur. We persuaded officers and men – and a few women – to tell us where we were, drawing arrows on crude maps. A colonel gave me some kind of permit scrawled in Hebrew that got us a lot of cheerful lifts. We slept, dozed rather, on rocky hillsides. We entered the refugee-choked Gaza Strip near Gaza City though a passage cut through the Egyptian minefield the day before by an Israeli frontal assault. Zahal – the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) – did not, I noted, go in for sophisticated tactics, preferring the approach of the US Marine Corps: "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle." Beside the cleared track we saw the burnt-out car of Ben Oyzerman of CBC, the first journalist to die in that war. At the northern end of the Strip a defiant remnant of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) was still trading ragged fire with the Israelis. A mortar shell burst ahead of our taxi and we hit the ditch. Moments later, five men and a girl in jeans and sandals and carrying assault rifles and hand grenades plopped into the ditch beside us. They were from the kibbutz Yad Mordechai, just over the border, on a souvenir hunt. Their kibbutz, they said, had lost 28 dead in the previous decade to PLA attacks. Over the border was a sign, "Nasser brings Victory", put up by the Egyptians after the irrelevant United Nations peacekeepers had been ordered out of the Strip. The Israelis dashed over under ragged fire and lugged it back.

Time for lunch. We headed for the nondescript Israeli town of Ashkelon, 10 kilometres away. A sweet grey-haired old lady with a German accent welcomed us to her cafe and served the house special, apfelstrudel. We had come through a nostalgic grove of eucalyptus brought from Australia when the British, up to 1948, were the government in these parts. Through it ran the remains of the railway that once ran from Kantara on the Suez Canal along the seacoast to Haifa, built by conscripted Egyptian labourers for the campaign of Sir Edmund Allenby which took Jerusalem from the Turks in December 1917. Nearby were the ruins of a Crusader fortress. Millennia of war had left marks hereabouts, and everyone brings, acknowledged or not, personal baggage to the Holy Land. Mine was a tepid Anglican childhood, good Muslim friends in London, fond memories of Jewish teachers and fellow students at school and university in Sydney, all floating on Hebrew poetry in King James's magical English version. With coffee, David's lament for Saul and Jonathan sprang to mind:

Tell it not in Gath,
Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcisèd triumph.

The ancient land of the intact Philistines is now the fought-over Gaza Strip, after whom the Romans, yet another of its occupiers, named the corridor between the desert and the sea Palestine.

 

BACK AT THE deserted Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv I typed my report. Israel's astonishing victory had followed well-attested military principles, I wrote. No army can ever be all-purpose, and that of Israel, behind its make-do-and-mend nonchalance of those years, was, and is, designed for a specific, very short and sharp war. Once the IDF's reserves – basically every male Jew between 18 and 50 – are fully mobilised, Israel itself slows to bare, unsustainable essentials. The Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies were poised close to Israel's borders while Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser breathed verbal fire, but made no move. Sending the IDF home would have put Israel in even deadlier danger. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his new defence minister, Moshe Dayan, had no realistic choice but to pre-empt whatever Nasser may have had in his bombastic mind. The Arab armies were deployed for threat, not defence. Short internal lines and fast military roads had let Israel's armoured spearhead switch from front to front, doubling the power of successive blows, two days for each. Hard training, unity of purpose, no reliable ally – a genuine case of en brera, "no alternative" – met muddle, indecision and apathy among the Arabs. A dazzling victory, but not a supernatural one. As Dayan's daughter, Yael, orderly to an already controversial general named Ariel Sharon, noted in A Soldier's Diary (1967), it was more a hunt than a fight. I wrote, sustained by self-service orange juice, through a long Friday night and telephoned section by section to the copy desk in London. An Israeli military censor occasionally came on the line, but asked for no changes. As dawn broke over the blue Judean hills I asked the elderly switchboard operator, the only male left in the hotel, why he had kept weary vigil so patiently with a foreign reporter on a tight deadline. "For the country," he said, unforgettably.

I caught some sleep and then walked to the Press Centre in the Beit Shokaloff for formal accreditation. Tel Aviv, tense and terrified when I arrived a few days earlier, was euphoric, dizzy with relief. Dusty reservists were suddenly everywhere, luxuriating in kisses, flowers and cheers bordering on idolatry. I was ushered into a theatre where a jovial Moshe Dayan – the first successful general to be called into politics in Israel's hour of peril – was giving an excited press conference. In eye patch and khaki shirt he looked just like his photographs. The questions were random, the answers cheerful, until a reporter asked: "General, what peace will you offer the Arabs?" The hubbub stilled and Dayan looked serious. "Such a defeat as this," he said thoughtfully, in accented English with a Yiddish twist, "no one needs."

Sinai, bar collecting captured weapons and stray prisoners, was now quiet. But next morning, a party of journalists would be visiting the West Bank. Libbert and I put up our hands and were back at Beit Shokaloff before sun-up. Our escort turned out to be a buxom woman soldier, Lieutenant Meir, which she explained means "light" in Hebrew. She carried an Israeli-made Uzi sub-machine gun, more as a symbol of authority than a weapon. "You're not in Vietnam now," she warned. "Here you do what we say, please." Our topless truck climbed to New Jerusalem, all-Jewish but with the solid functional look of what only 19 years before had been British-administered city. We crossed the pre-war Israeli frontier, past a minimal roadblock and made the long descent down to the River Jordan. I don't know what I expected, but what I saw haunts me to this day. My report, Crossing over Jordan, was published in The Sunday Times of June 18, 1967.

The road from Jerusalem down to Jericho today presents one of the most jarring images of the 20th century. Through a timeless biblical landscape, past names known to every Christian, Muslim and Jew as the places where the teachers of peace and reconciliation spoke, trudges an unending stream of refugees, thirsty, hungry and afraid, picking their way through the debris of mechanised war.

The road is littered with the wreckage of King Hussein's Arab Legion. In one pass (from the top you can see the glittering domes of Jerusalem, and the other way the Dead Sea shimmering far below in the relentless sunshine) the Israeli Air Force caught a Jordanian convoy. Six tanks, still pointing towards Jerusalem and Israel, are blackened burnt-out wrecks; they have been drenched in napalm. Trucks and Land Rovers have been run off the road as the drivers tried to get out of the way of the aircraft: they lie upside down, neatly stitched by cannon fire. Nearby a dispatch rider's motorcycle lies by the roadside. The rider ran for his life as the jets came in: I cannot tell whether he made it or not because the Israelis have cleared the road of bodies.

A tractor and trailer lie beside the road, the trailer's load of mattresses and furniture and pots and pans scattered over the ditch. This must have been an early refugee who tried to leave while the fighting was going on. Some tank in a hurry – from which side I cannot tell – must have run him off the road. Among all this military hardware there is tempting loot, but the refugees touch nothing. They are carrying enough already. Some drive donkeys loaded with household gear, some push overloaded bicycles. One Arab woman pushes two children in a perambulator. The pram has lost its two back wheels.

Most of the refugees are women with children; they are the wives, perhaps the widows, they have no way of knowing, of the soldiers who have been driven back in rout over the Jordan.

Some of the refugees wear Arab dress, but many are in tattered European clothes. They are Palestinians from the refugee camps in the territory Israel has occupied. They were fed by the United Nations and clothed in the cast-offs of Europe by such worthy bodies as CARE and Oxfam. Now they are on the move again, double refugees.

The plain of the Jordan and the Dead Sea is one of the driest places on earth and this is a very hot day. Whirlwinds carry columns of sand hundreds of feet high, from which the refugees emerge choking and powdered with sand. Outside Jerusalem some nuns from a nearby Catholic convent ladle out water to the refugees as they trudge by. Farther down the road a roadblock of Israeli soldiers have a captured Jordanian water carrier; they too ladle out water. Miles down the road we come upon a knot of refugees – a lad, three women and five small children – who hail us with the Arabic greeting "salaam eleikum" ("Peace be upon you"). Their lips are swollen and they are burnt red under their dark skins. They point to their mouths and the lad says the English word, "water, water".

We have none, but we give them a bottle of cold Israeli orange juice we have brought for ourselves. They share the juice out, children first, and the lad says the Arabic for thankyou (shuklan, shuklan) and shakes my hand.

The refugees are making for the Jordan River. But the Arab Legion in its flight has blown up all of the bridges. At the Allenby Bridge (renamed by the Jordanians the Hussein Bridge) just outside Jericho, the Israelis have constructed a primitive crossing of planks lashed to the twisted spans and girders, which have tumbled into the brown water.

The crossing is rough and uneven, just wide enough for one person to cross at a time. Since last Thursday the orders of General Chaim (Vivian) Herzog, Israeli commander of the West Bank of the Jordan [later president of Israel-MS] have been clear and simple: anyone can cross the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. But no one can come back the other way.

The refugees arrive at the Allenby crossing and are helped down by armed Israeli soldiers who behave with gentleness and consideration. The crossing is far too narrow and uneven for anything but people to pass. So the Israeli side is strewn with bundles of clothes and cooking gear the refugees have been unable to carry over – after getting their possessions as far as the Jordan. Donkeys and camels abandoned by their owners wander through the Israeli camp, the donkeys braying disconsolately. Across the river Jordanians in civilian clothes help the refugees into trucks and buses. They drive off, somewhere into Jordan. On the Israeli side the refugees keep arriving, by no means all on foot: the Israeli military have organised a transport service to bring refugees to the crossing point and they arrive in Israeli buses, Israeli military trucks and captured Jordanian military transport.

No one is allowed to cross the Jordan from the other side, but many want to. They are mostly men and they are frantic with worry – their families are over the other side in the occupied area.

One man seizes my arm: "Please sir, please I beg you," he says in good English. We talk for a few minutes, our feet practically in the Jordan River. "My wife and children," he says. He explains that he is Saad Sahawneh, a Jordanian engineer and he lived in Ramallah, just outside Jerusalem. He was away working in Saudi Arabia when the war broke out. He has come back to find them and got only as far as the Jordan.

He has spent two days and nights trying to get over. He is grey-haired and his face is creased with worry. "I beg you, sir, I am a peaceable man, I only want permission to find them and bring them out," he says. I tell him that the Israelis are behaving decently and have tolerated no looting and no molesting of women.

This seems to cheer him up somewhat and he scrawls a note to his wife in English and lists the names of his children, Mary, Isam and Ghada. I tell him I will try to find them and tell them he is all right and waiting for them.

I ask the Israeli colonel for permission for the engineer to come with us, but he says: "I am sorry, I have my orders. There is still a security problem on our side and we cannot let anyone in." Conscious that the scene before my eyes will be argued over, perhaps fought over again, I try to get some facts straight. Numbers: on the Israeli side there is no counting, no checking of papers or identities. But by counting the buses and checking the numbers who crossed in the hours I spent by the Jordan I estimate that between four and five thousand will have gone over by Saturday night.

Motive: this is one of the most difficult problems I have faced in years of newspaper work, and the answer greatly depends on which side your sympathies lie – if you are other than neutral in this war. Those who take the Arab side may well say that the Israelis intend to annex the conquered territories on the West Bank of the Jordan (and maybe the Gaza Strip as well), and that they are trying to get rid of the potential fifth column of Arabs by encouraging them to take a one-way trip to Jordan.

I discussed this with General Herzog. The general is the son of a former chief rabbi of Ireland and I take him to be a decent, kindly and honourable man. He is also a general in a victorious army and he is under orders himself. He told me: "We are compelling no one, Arab or otherwise, to leave the territories under our occupation. We cannot let anyone back in at this time because there is a real security problem still. I cannot say if we ever will: that is a political decision and not for me to make."

I was able to talk with many refugees on the roads. As far as I could see, the Israelis are not compelling anyone to leave, although they are not discouraging them either; their motive, whether reasonable or not, is fear. The Arab radio stations have certainly been telling them that the Jews will kill or maltreat them (which as far as I have seen is not the case) and a violent war has just been fought over their heads.

What are the prospects for Arabs who stay under Israeli rule? The fact which conditions the situation is one that every Israeli believes – and, one must admit with some justification – that if the Arabs had won this war they would have killed every Jew they could lay their hands on. It is true that the Arabs living in Israel have better schools, better medical care and a higher standard of living than most Arabs. But the Israeli who tells you this sounds disturbingly like a South African who tells you that his Africans are better off materially than the Africans who live in black-ruled countries, and seems to think that this is all there is to say on the subject.

But if the future of Arabs inside the old Israeli borders is unclear, the future of the Palestinian Arabs who have been living for 19 years in the refugee camps, which are now mostly under Israeli government, is one of black hopelessness: a disgrace to the ability of the human race to solve its problems.

[Or did I mean Israel's ability? Whose ultimate responsibility is the fate of these people? I hesitated on the word then, and decades later I still hesitate. It goes to the heart of the tragedy.] I concluded my report, all too prophetically:

I wish I could believe that the file of refugees scrambling over the holy River Jordan near the spot where Jesus was baptised are not simply carrying a fresh load of fear and hatred with them.

 

I DROVE BACK to Tel Aviv in a turmoil of emotions that have never gone away. How to weigh that despairing exodus of the innocent against the wild jubilation in Tel Aviv? I saw (and still see) much to admire about Israel – the bravery of its soldiers, the dedication of its pioneers, its open politics. But at what cost? How to reconcile it with timeless Jewish morality? Jesus's contemporary, the great Rabbi Hillel, challenged to recite the Torah (Law) while standing on one foot, replied: "Do not do to your neighbour what is hateful to yourself. The rest is commentary." Which neighbours did the rabbi mean? Who is a neighbour, who a stranger, is at the heart of the conflict.

 

ONE MYSTERY, AT first baffling, was clearer on the ground – the passivity of the Palestinians. Another war had been fought over their heads, supposedly for their cause, while they stolidly worked their fields or meekly trudged into exile. None of their long succession of alien rulers – Greeks, Romans, Turks, British, Egyptians, Jordanians – had ever consulted them about their aspirations. They offered no resistance to their latest occupiers, no threat to an anonymous journalist who came with them. Over the next few days, I sought Israeli opinions. The victory had not come without pain to Israel, either – 968 dead, a lot in one week in a small country. "Our Dov has fallen for the liberation of Jerusalem" was a sad death notice I still remember in The Jerusalem Post. But, in the general Jewish jubilation, anything seemed possible, the hard sacrifices surely clearing the way for a more secure future.

Back in Tel Aviv I heard of a plan published in Haolem Hazah, a racy magazine edited by a member of the Israeli parliament, Uri Avnery, and asked to meet him. Avnery, a former member of the terrorist Irgun Zvai Leumi and a wounded veteran of the 1948 war, excitedly told me that now, with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip occupied by Israel, there was "a historic opportunity to make peace for generations". He proposed an immediate plebiscite among Palestinians giving them the choice of setting up a Palestinian state at peace with Israel, with its full support. "The Arab world is in a state of shock, the Palestinians freed from Jordanian and Egyptian rule and for the first time able to take their fate into their own hands," he told me. "In such a rare situation, a bold initiative can change the consciousness of whole nations. Arab culture glorifies generous gestures of victors at the time of their triumph."

Avnery, still a prominent Israeli peace activist (he was with Yasser Arafat as a "human shield" in October 2001 when the Israeli government decided to "remove" him after a suicide bombing in Haifa had killed 19) recalled recently on his website www.avnery-news.co.il that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had asked to hear his peace plan. He urged the PM that "if Israel comes now, on the morrow of its incredible victory, and offers the Palestinian freedom and national independence in all the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a new era will start."

Avnery continued: "Eshkol, a pleasant and humorous person, listened patiently. When I was done, he smiled: 'Uri, what kind of merchant are you? When negotiating a deal, one starts by offering the minimum and demanding the maximum. In the course of the negotiation one compromises and meets the other side somewhere in the middle.' I answered: 'Mr Prime Minister that is true if you are selling a horse. It is not true when you want to put an end to a historical conflict between peoples'."

Later, Avnery recalled, Eshkol sent his adviser on Arab affairs, Moshe Sasson, for further discussion. "There was no basic difference of opinion between my assessment and that of Mr Avnery," Sasson told his boss "[but] the question is whether the Arabs want such a state if it does not include [East] Jerusalem. Since we are not willing to give back Arab Jerusalem, the whole debate about a Palestinian state becomes an abstract and useless one. Neither I nor Mr Avnery could point to one of the West Bank leaders who would be willing to support the idea of a Palestinian state without Jerusalem." Avnery adds, "If someone today asks how, 35 years ago, we lost a historic chance to make peace, here lies the answer. History is a cruel old woman with a twisted sense of humour."

 

I WAS BACK in Israel for the state funeral of Levi Eshkol, who died in office in February 1969 – "They buried him like a Jewish prince," I wrote – and took the opportunity to visit the refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza previously closed to reporters. My permit was issued by Major-General Shlomo Gazit, co-ordinator of Israeli government policy in the occupied territories (his visiting card used the biblical names Judea and Samaria), who later wrote to me commending a fair report, and is now a bitter critic of Israel's occupation policies. [Trapped Fools: Thirty Years of Israeli Policy in the Territories London/Portland Oregon 2003] The same incurious passivity was still there, but life had improved economically with the slow resumption, after a 19-year hiatus, of trade between the two sides, encouraged by Israel. My Israeli money was welcome everywhere. The camps, however, had changed little. Rural ingenuity had turned the tented lines of 1948 into more substantial shantytowns, still without footpaths, parks or much in the way of public buildings. The basic food ration was (and still is) flour, sugar, cooking oil and salt – "no feast," I wrote, "1500 calories a day, just enough to keep a person who does no work alive, and containing no proteins or vitamins whatever. To make up the deficiency the refugees ... have found a little casual seasonal work. But the long-term result has been to produce a generation undernourished, despairing and an easy mark for hate-filled propaganda." The refugees still had the family fertility patterns of rural farms and urban slums, with laughing Arab children everywhere. "The United Nations people have done wonders with limited resources in educational and vocational training," I reported. "And they have been able to find jobs in other Arab countries for 7000 refugees from the Strip in the past 19 years – compared with a natural increase in the Strip camps of between 7000 and 8000 every year." (On the CIA's estimate, Arab fertility in the Gaza Strip in 2002 was 6.29 births per woman, one of the highest ever recorded, while that of Israel proper was 2.57 births per woman, plus a net Jewish immigration of 2.5 per 1000 of the pre-1967 Israeli population. No wonder Israelis fret over the "demographic crisis" by which they may soon be overtaken.)

Being nearby, I visited the Yad Mordechai kibbutz that I had glimpsed during the June 1967 fighting, and had another disquieting experience. Named for Mordechai Anilewitz, heroic leader of the doomed Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, it is famous in Israel for its honey, and for having held off an Egyptian division from the Gaza Strip for a crucial six days before being overrun in the war of 1948. A water tower holed by an Egyptian shell still stands as a memorial. The surprise was a new (or perhaps I had not taken it in previously) museum devoted to the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and to the Holocaust in general. "There were one and a half million children," says an inscription at the entrance. Moving, but the disorienting surprise was in the first room of the museum – a display of German uniforms with German decorations and German medals, awarded to Jewish soldiers serving in the Kaiser's armies in the First World War. The message was all too clear: if Jews in Germany and Austria – where Jews had been the most assimilated, the most prosperous, the most creative and intellectually distinguished in all Europe – could have these dreadful and pointless crimes committed against them, then under whose protection could they be safe? Only under their own. The shadow of the Holocaust darkens Israeli minds to this day. It explains, if it does not validate, Israel's secret decision to build an atomic bomb, taken in the 1950s, whose consequences are still unclear but in any view are terrifying.

"Before Hitler rose to power, other Europeans often feared, admired, envied and ridiculed the Germans," writes the Israeli historian Amos Elon. [The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany 1743-1933 by Amos Elon, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2002] "Only Jews seem actually to have loved them." His account is both startling and pathetic. The assimilated Viennese journalist and playwright Theodor Herzl, the visionary founder of political Zionism (the seaside Tel Aviv suburb Herzlia is named after him) believed that German would be the language of his proposed Jewish state, and tried to persuade Kaiser Wilhelm II to intercede with Germany's good friend the Sultan of Turkey, to bring it about. "Through Zionism it will again be possible for Jews to love this Germany to which our hearts remained attached despite everything," Herzl wrote in his diary in October 7, 1898. "Life under the protectorate of this powerful, great, moral, splendidly administered, firmly governed Germany can only have the most salutary effects on the Jewish national character." Kaiser Bill was unpersuaded, and, meeting Herzl in Constantinople, let slip the ugly reality of his view of the Zionist dream. "There are among your people certain elements who it would be a good thing to move to Palestine," he grated.

 

AS THE "EUROPEAN civil was" loomed, German-Jewish reservists who had already settled in Palestine hurried to rejoin their regiments. Most German Jews voted for the German Social Democratic Party, but the socialists were caught up in war fever, too. Events had conspired to give Germany near-unanimity for war. German Jews feared Russia, then the only European state where anti-Semitism was official policy, where the pogrom had a long history. Germans feared Russia's alliance with France, yearning to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine, and German Jews were outraged by the clumsy frame-up of the French-Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, condemned to Devil's Island on a false charge of spying for Germany. "In France!" Herzl wrote. "In republican, modern, civilised France, a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man!". The assimilated and irreligious Herzl, reporting the case from Paris for the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna, reported to his friend Max Nomad that the persecution of Dreyfus as a "dirty Jew" had made him a Zionist. Germans sympathised with the South African Boers, seeing them as a small, God-fearing Teutonic people oppressed by the same soulless British bloodsuckers who were denying Germany its rightful (ie, prominent) place in the world. A Jewish poet, Ernst Lissauer, came up with the Berlin hit song of 1914:

We shall hate you with a long-lasting hate,
A hate that endures and will never abate,
Hatred by sea and hatred by land,

From those who wear crowns or work by their hand,
Seventy millions all as one man,
United in love and united in woe
United in hatred of one single foe
England!

Lissauer killed himself in Vienna after the Nazi takeover of 1938. An even crueller fate befell another patriotic German Jew who kept Germany's total war effort going, after its first victories slowed into stalemate. Walter Rathenau was the son of Emil Rathenau, the Jewish industrialist who brought the electric light to Germany. Son Walter proposed, as Germany's war aim, the establishment of a European common market under German hegemony, made up of France, Belgium, Holland and possibly Austria-Hungary. In August 1914, the Prussian war minister, General Erich von Falkenhayn, called on Rathenau to organise German industry for total war, with the temporary rank of general. In eight months, Rathenau set up the world's first planned economy. One of his discoveries was the brilliant Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, an associate of Albert Einstein at the famous Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, whose Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrogen from the air kept Germany in explosives and fertiliser for the next four bloody years. Haber also developed poison gases, including the Zyklon B, later used in the Nazi extermination camps. After the war, Walther Rathenau became German foreign minister and was murdered by ultra-nationalist terrorists, early Nazis, in 1922. Wanted by the Allies as a war criminal, Haber, after the war, continued his researches until he was denounced as "the Jew Haber" when Hitler came to power, accepted an appointment at Cambridge, and died on his way to take it up.

Other Jews served their Kaiser in less exalted roles. Lieutenant Hugo Guttmann recommended his battalion runner, Corporal Adolf Hitler, for the Iron Cross, pushed for the award and personally pinned his medal on the future Führer's scrawny chest. "Their true home, we now know," Elon writes perceptively "was not 'Germany' but German culture and language." The outcome was much the same, and while anyone is alive who remembers Germany's betrayal of its patriotic Jewish citizens by Hitler's Nazis, Israelis are unlikely to forget it, either. There is another lesson, just as alarming. The Jews who allied themselves with the most nationalistic strain of German militarism, under the impression that they were being better Germans – and some who were fascinated, as people long denied it, by the exercise of power – were all unknowingly preparing a terrible fate for themselves and all their European co-religionists. Some American Jewish organisations are now prominent in the counsels of another nationalistic, expansive military power. Should things go wrong this time? The prospect does not bear thinking about.

 

ARAB PALESTINIANS NURSE bitter memories, too. Modern-day muslims aspiring to lead the Umma, the People of Allah, from Nasser to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have routinely denounced American, British, French, Israeli and other Western intruders into the Arab world as "Crusaders" or "Crusader-Zionists". They are recalling July 15, 1099, when the bloodthirsty Christians of the First Crusade stormed the walls of Jerusalem, massacred its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants and looted the holy city. In two days, some 40,000 men, women and children perished, and according to one pious eyewitness, Raymund of Aiguilles, the Christian knights rode up to their knees in bloodied bodies. No Muslim has forgotten this atrocity, which then had no parallel in their history. Nor have they forgotten its sequel, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and its violent end 192 years later. Jews, too, recall the Crusades as the first systematic murder of Jews by Christian Europeans, and thus as a prototype of the Holocaust.

Christians have no such aching memories. At school we heard about the heroic Richard the Lionheart and his Muslim rival in courtliness, Saladin. Even our word "chivalrous" with its meaning "knight-like" has only benign connotations. The Crusades are, at best, footnotes in our history books, and George W. Bush had to be kicked under the Oval Office table to stop him calling his war in Muslim Afghanistan a "crusade". The horrors of the Crusades have been wiped from our memory. They led nowhere, produced no poets or theologians, taught Christians nothing of the majestic Muslim civilisation they had savaged, and left little behind except mailed figures on English tombs and the ruined castles that litter the Holy Land, where they first aroused my own interest in the Latin Kingdom and its lasting lessons for us. Recent archaeology and scholarship have filled many blanks. The Crusades had immense consequences, all malign. They initiated Europe's own wars of religion, without parallel in Judaism or Islam, and poured more venom into the hatreds of the Middle East, by making Christianity the bloodthirstiest of the three faiths in conflict, the most ignorantly self-righteous among the worshippers of the merciful God of all of us.

 

JUDAISM, WITH SHALOM, and Islam, with salaam, both invoke "peace" as their everyday greeting, while Christians used to say pax vobiscum, "peace upon you". Why all the insistence on peace? The sacred scriptures of the first two faiths give us a plain answer: both were born in war. About 1250BC (there is no dating system common to the three faiths, so arbitrarily I use the Christian one) the prophet Moses – an Egyptian nobleman, by his name – led a people known to history as the Hebrews from Egypt across the Sinai Desert to a new home in the settled lands of the Canaanites, the modern Israel/Palestine. Semi-nomadic tribes called the Hapiru (Hebrews?) are recorded in Assyria and Egypt, but this seems to have referred not to a religion or ethnicity but to a lifestyle – spells of work in settled communities under alien rulers, followed by the journeys across deserts that have shaped all the peoples of the Middle East. Walkabout, in other climes.

Ascending Mount Sinai alone, Moses reported an experience of conversion, or communion with a supernatural being, whose general outline – a bright light, a thunderous voice, possession by an unseen force – describes a psychological state known to all humanity. Moses descended from his mountain top with a collection of legends widespread among Semitic peoples – creation from nothingness, a lost paradise, a great flood – and a set of practical rules for preserving unity among a pastoral people, enjoining loyalty and loving kindness within the group and its corollary, watchful hostility towards outsiders – the psychological basis of war. Moses' revelation had come from a single divinity, a male sky or storm god named Yahweh, who asserted that all rival gods were false and promising cultivable land to all who accepted him. Yahweh was not the first universal deity – not long before, the pharaoh Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti had proclaimed a similar status for Aton, the Egyptian sun god – but Yahweh also laid down a moral code, the Ten Commandments, which still guide Jews, Muslims and Christians.

The monotheism of Moses is a matter faith and still keeps theologians busy, implying as it does that the one all-powerful god must be the source of evil as well as of good. But it is a sharp psychological insight, locating both good and evil where they belong, in the divided human personality we all share. Less debatable are monotheism's earthly consequences. Nomadic peoples, where every man is a warrior and every woman an auxiliary, are born fighters. They constantly war with one another, battling over plunder and pasture in the names of their many hostile gods. One god for all implies a unified military command on earth, and thus adds to the nomads' hardiness, mobility and martial spirit the capacity for siege and manoeuvre – an irresistible combination. Victory proves that the one god favours the nomads' cause, reinforces his worship and whets appetites for more. Here we have an earthly explanation of the conquest of Canaan by Moses' successor, the tough general Joshua.

Like the universal military mind, this kind of warlike religion is simple and unsubtle, but it speaks to a ferocity as old as humanity. When Joshua invaded the land of Canaan, the Bible tells us, he "massacred the population of the whole region, the highlands, the Negev, the lowlands, the hillsides and all their kings. He left not a man alive, destroying everything that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel had commanded" (Joshua 10:40). "God made them [the Royalists] as stubble before our swords," Oliver Cromwell reported to Parliament three millennia later. "Those who are not with us are against us," said George W Bush. War and fundamentalist faith are old comrades-in-arms.

 

TWO THOUSAND YEARS after Moses and Joshua the pattern of conquest they had set was followed on a near-global scale by the followers of a visionary poet and warrior named Muhammad (Muslims by custom add a blessing to his name, which I omit) born around AD570 into a minor clan, the Banu Hashim, part of the Quraysh, the dominant tribe of the oasis city of Mecca in the Arabian desert. Mecca had long been a centre of trade and pilgrimage for Arabs, the object of worship being Al-Llah ("The God"), represented by a sacred black stone, which was probably a large meteorite. But Allah was only one of many rival gods. Orphaned young, Muhammad married a widow, Khalija, who had become wealthy by commerce, and while she lived had no other wife. Around, by tradition, the age of 40, Muhammad was meditating in a cave near Mecca, wrestling with the Angel Gabriel (known to Jews and Christians, with whom Muhammad was in touch via his wife's trading relations). Suddenly the about-to-be prophet heard a mighty voice in his head, ordering Muhammad to teach that there was only one creator-god (Qu'ran Sutra 99-1). Over the next 23 years, Muhammad received many more revelations. Collectively, they make up the sacred scripture of the Muslims ("those who submit [to the will of Allah]"). Designed to be read aloud (Qu'ran means "recitation"), they are in a sinewy, melodic Arabic, among the greatest religious literatures of the world, and, Muslims believe the voice of Allah himself speaking.

At first fearful and confused, Muhammad, encouraged by Khalija, came to accept that his revelations were from Allah himself. Whether they were, or the unconscious work of a mighty imagination (the point which divides Muslims from non-Muslims), they set out in poetic form a clear moral code and advice on life's perennial problems, the function, of all durable religions. As he had been commanded, Muhammad began preaching his message to the people of Mecca, who were caught up in all manner of immorality, but they were mostly unreceptive, accusing him of possession by an evil spirit, djinn, a charge often levelled at poets. In AD622, with a few of his converts, Muhammad fled to Medina, 440 kilometres north of Mecca, a more accommodating city. Hence the Muslim calendar is dated from this hijra so that 2005 is 1383AH, on the analogy of AD, "year of our Lord". For Jews it is 5766, traditionally, the years since the exodus from Egypt.

Muhammad's preaching won many converts in Medina. By 630, he was ready to lead a pilgrimage to Mecca at the head of 10,000 warriors. The Meccans submitted with the loss of only two Muslims. The same year, Muhammad led 30,000 men to the borders of Syria. He died in 632, the most feared man in Arabia, having demonstrated once again the military superiority of nomads united under one god, with one earthly commander, against less warlike and less inspired opponents. Under Muhammad's successors, the Caliphs (kalifa, "successor" in Arabic), the Arab horsemen achieved the fastest territorial expansion in history. In 638 they took Jerusalem, with negligible resistance. By 711 they had occupied Egypt and all North Africa and were in Spain. They had already conquered Persia, now the Muslim Iran. Arab sea traders took the new faith to India and Indonesia. Eventually their successors stood at the gates of Vienna and on the borders of China. How was this military miracle achieved? The Qu'ran expressly forbids forcible conversion and the Muslim armies obliged no one to fight to the death for their own faith. Jews and Christians, as "the peoples of the book" (mentioned in the Qu'ran) were put under Muslim protection, although subjected to special taxes and forbidden to proselytise among true believers, or challenge Muslim rule. Power always attracts collaborators. Conversion was easy and open to all, by simply acknowledging Allah as the one true God and Muhammad as his prophet. By suppressing tribal warfare, Islam, invoking peace, really did bring long periods of tranquillity. It nurtured a complex civilisation, the test of any potentially universal faith. It made huge strides in science, as our English words from algebra and alcohol to zero and zenith attest. But it has never quite lost the roots of all religion, in war.

At first, Christianity looks the odd creed out in this warlike gallery, and indeed it took almost a thousand years to get from its founder's teaching, "all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matthew 26:52), to the idea of Christians waging holy war in the name of the prince of peace. In its first three centuries, it was the non-violence of Christians, who cheerfully became martyrs ("witnesses") rather than fight back or abjure their beliefs that, together with their upright lives – what we would now call their "family values" – stood out amid the violence, social turmoil, loss of faith in traditional religion and ostentatious hedonism of pagan imperial Rome, when thoughtful people sought to give their lives dignity and meaning. A time, in fact, of many parallels with our own. Much was to change, however, in 312, when the Emperor Constantine I defeated a rival claimant to the imperial purple in a battle just outside Rome. For some unknown reason – he was no Christian himself, but soldiers are famously superstitious – Constantine fought under the Christian symbol, the cross, initiating the process that was eventually to make Christianity the only Roman religion, its rivals either suppressed or driven underground.

This did not, however, license Christians to wage holy war. It was true that Jesus, asked whether Jews should pay imperial taxes, pointed to a Roman coin with the emperor's head on one side and replied: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:20-21). By this the Teacher plainly meant only that his hearers should be law-abiding Roman citizens in non-spiritual matters, a long way short of killing at Caesar's orders.

 

AROUND THE TURN of the fourth Christian century, the strife-riven western Roman Empire was infiltrated by fierce Germanic tribes who mostly came over the Rhine frontier. One group, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, crossed to Britain and became the English, a Frenchified version of whose rough tongue you are now reading. Some took up Christianity and Roman dress, more as subterfuge than out of conviction. Rome itself fell in 476AD. For the next 500 years, city life all but ceased in the West, earning the era the name Dark Ages. Christianity survived, just, but only in isolated monasteries, usually defended by soldier-monks. Slowly, on the wreckage of Roman Gaul, the invaders evolved the new social system that we call feudalism, rooted in the warrior code of the Germanic tribes, courage, loyalty and honour. The status and rights of Roman citizens disappeared. Instead, a warrior aristocracy held land farmed by serfs in return for military service to a lord ("breadgiver") in the expensive role of knights, the heavy armoured cavalry first developed by the Persians. The lords built private castles from which they and their sworn followers pursued dubious dynastic claims, the best known to English speakers being the Norman invasion of 1066. In fact, they were simply fighting for loot and territory, as tribesmen always have.

Then, seemingly by divine intervention, a way forward appeared. In 1095, the Emperor Alexius Comnenus I of the still-surviving Eastern Roman Empire, hard-pressed by Muslim Turks, appealed to his brother Christian of the West, Pope Urban II, for help. Alexius probably had in mind a few knights to stiffen the defences of his capital, Constantinople. Urban, from a Frankish (ie Germanic) knightly family in Champagne, saw wider possibilities. The medieval popes had long sought a "Peace of God" in place of the murderous anarchy of feudalism. On tested tribal principles, the way to internal unity is war against an external enemy. Who better than the heathen Muslims and their false prophet, Mahound – as the Crusaders mispronounced "Muhammad"? Christians had continued pilgrimages to Jerusalem long after Arab armies peacefully occupied the holy city. Pope Urban found a theological basis for Christians to shed blood in two ideas, both unique to feudal Europe: warrior monks and armed pilgrimage, or crusade. None of the rudimentary Christian feudal states could have afforded such a costly expedition. Urban II's dubious innovation was to make holy war self-financing, by linking the highest Christian penance, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with the growing military and financial resources of Northern Europe.

 

POPE URBAN PROCLAIMED his theological revolution at an oper-air assembly at Clermont, France, on November 27, 1095, a date in whose shadow we still live. Urban defined the aim of his warlike pilgrimage as "the liberation of the Church of God [in Jerusalem]" and granted remission of sins, not only to those reaching the holy city, but to those who fell along the way. "Deus Vult!" shouted the delirious crowd: "God wills [it]!" The beleaguered Christians of Constantinople went unmentioned. With the showmanship of a medieval Billy Graham, Urban urged those vowing to fight for Jerusalem to wear the cross as a sign of commitment, citing another text of the ever-useful Matthew (16:24): "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me". Clearly stage-managed, the soldier-Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy was the first to step forward and take the cross, already sewn to his surplice. As the polymath and former nun Karen Armstrong writes (Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on the Modern World, Anchor Books, 1992): "By giving these 'pilgrims' to Jerusalem a sword, Urban had made violence central to the religious experience of the Christian layman, and Western Christianity had acquired an aggression that it has never entirely lost."

Urban's theology, in effect a licence to kill those not of his faith, soon had predictably evil consequences unintended by its author. In March 1096, the growing army of crusaders, marching down the Rhine valley, massacred the Jews of Speyer, Wurms and Mainz, communities that had lived in peace with their neighbours since Roman times. A viciously anti-Semitic preacher, Peter the Hermit, incited these outrages, the first of many European pogroms to come. An eyewitness, Rabbi Eliezer Bar Nathan, reported the reasoning of the mostly illiterate knights: "Look now, we are going to seek out our profanity and to take vengeance on the Ishmaelites for our Messiah, when here are the Jews who murdered and crucified Him. Let us first avenge ourselves on them and exterminate them from among the nations so that the name of Israel will no longer be remembered, or let them adopt our faith." The Holocaust had very old, Christian roots.

By the time they reached Jerusalem three years later, the surviving Crusaders were hardened killers, pitiless as only religious (or their modern competitors, ideological) warriors can be. After some hard fighting against the Turks in Anatolia, the Crusaders met only scattered resistance in a militarily unimportant area the Caliphs never expected to have to defend. Most of the Holy Land was soon in militant Christian hands.

But what then? Urban II died two weeks after Jerusalem fell, without disclosing his – much less God's – long-term plans for the new conquests. The Crusaders who reached Jerusalem had fulfilled their vows, earned Urban's promised remission of sins and then, if they had anything to go home to, went home. But many second sons, land-hungry adventurers, the misfits in feudal Europe decided to stay on. Defeating his only serious challengers, the Egyptians, at Ashkelon, the Crusader Godfrey of Bouillon was proclaimed king of Jerusalem in July 1099 but ruled for only a year before his death.

Expecting devils in human form, the Crusaders instead found people more cultivated than themselves. They were captivated by the warmth of Muslim manners, their spacious houses, their attention to personal hygiene and their glad acceptance of sex, in contrast to the guilt-ridden inhibitions and squalid living conditions of medieval Europe. Short of women, like all invading armies, many Crusaders took local wives, learnt their languages and left behind the blue eyes often seen among Palestinians to this day. Nor did there seem any great urgency about setting borders to the land that God had given the Christians. Twice they invaded Egypt, once were turned back at the gates of Baghdad. Within 10 years they held most of Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon and much of Syria. The first hint of the disaster to come was not on the flexible frontiers but in Jerusalem itself.

 

THE LATIN KINGDOM of Jerusalem had all the weaknesses of the emerging feudal states of Europe, familiar from our history books and newspapers – human frailty, weak kings, court intrigues, proud barons defying royal authority – with a further complication: what, beyond bare survival, was its purpose? Was it simply to keep open the route for Christian pilgrimage? – in which case some accommodation with the local Arabs seemed the only way to let newcomers and locals get on with their lives, freed of the threat of war. Or was Latin Jerusalem to be a base for more conquests, waging holy war until the wicked religion of Islam was destroyed and the cross carried to the ends of the earth? It was, and is, irrelevant to the survival of Christianity whose kingdom, its founder taught, is not of this world. On the whole, the Latin kings of Jerusalem chose peaceful co-existence, especially when they discovered that Islam forbids its faithful to initiate war – (Qu'ran 2:191) and enjoins co-operation when an enemy asks for talks or proposes a truce, although truces should be limited to 10 years (Qu'ran 8:62-63) and not be unfavourable to Islam (but the Qu'ran, ominously, gives "leave ... to those who fight because they are wronged ... or were expelled from their dwellings without right"(22:39). In the kingdom's first 74 relatively peaceful years, what we would now call single-state, bi-confessional future seemed within reach.

But then physical frailty intervened. The young king Baldwin IV contracted "leprosy", most likely skin cancer, and died at 25 in 1185, to be succeeded by the child-king Baldwin V and a complicated regency. Two ambitious men disputed the succession. One, Reynauld of Chatillon, freebooter turned Christian fanatic, had been captured by Muslims he was trying to plunder. Held for 18 years, he returned to the Latin Kingdom burning for revenge. Acquiring by marriage a castle east of the Jordan, Reynauld made it a base for an audacious seaborne expedition in the style of an Israeli commando raid, using folding boats tested on the Dead Sea and aimed at desecrating the tomb of Muhammad, "the accursed camel-driver", pressing on to Mecca and razing Islam's holiest shrine with its sacred black stone. The Christian pirates were captured and executed, but their leader escaped to stir up more woe for his brother Crusaders.

Perennially divided, the Arabs were beginning to take alarm at the Crusader threat. When King Almaric of Jerusalem invaded Egypt in 1162, the squabbling Muslims were energised to resist. The unified command went to a young Kurdish soldier Yusuf Salah ad-Din, remembered in the West as Saladin ("The Truth of Faith"), our epitome of a chivalrous Muslim warrior. Nine years later, Saladin ruled Egypt. In the next decade he enlisted Syria, Northern Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Muslim Palestine for holy war against the Crusaders. His argument that they aimed to destroy Islam was greatly helped by the plunder and slaughter of pilgrim caravans on their way to Mecca by Reynauld and other Crusader expansionists.

The child-king Baldwin V died in 1186, to be succeeded in a palace coup by his mother, Sibylla, and her new husband, Guy de Lusignan, as joint sovereigns. Saladin saw his chance in the resulting division among the Crusaders, forded the Jordan with an army of 25,000 and took the Crusader city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, besieging Queen Sibylla herself in the citadel. Guy was 30 kilometres away with an army of 20,000; every knight and man-at-arms the Crusaders could scrape together. King Guy was persuaded that chivalry demanded he rescue his wife. The month of July 1187 was another baking Middle Eastern midsummer. Harassed by waves of Muslim horse-archers unencumbered by armour, the knights struggled over the waterless plain, the True Cross in their midst, and camped below two hillocks, called the Horns of Hattin, looking down on Tiberias and its sparkling lake only 10 kilometres away. At dawn on July 4, 1187, mouths swollen with thirst, the knights tried to break through, but their charge failed. King Guy and the True Cross were captured. Saladin treated Guy courteously, as the Qu'ran enjoins, his rival Reynauld, rejecting a formal demand to embrace Islam, was executed on the spot as a truce-breaker. Sibylla was allowed to rejoin her husband in comfortable captivity in Damascus, while the Crusader rank and file were sold as slaves for a bargain three dinars a head. One Muslim traded a Christian for a pair of sandals. On October 2, 1187, Jerusalem fell to Saladin. He invited the Jews to return, forbade the looting or vandalising of all holy places, and by his orders, no Christian was insulted or suffered harm – but their old certainty of God's favour never came back.

As so often happens, events elsewhere in the Middle East shattered the last hope. In 1258, Mongols, nominally Muslims, swept into the Arab empire from central Asia, took Baghdad and massacred its people. They got as far as the Nile before being defeated in Galilee by Mamluks, the Turkish slave-soldiers who had made themselves masters of Egypt. The Mamluks brought a disciplined ferocity unknown to the easygoing Arabs. Muslims lived in terror of more Mongol invasions and the Crusaders, clinging to the flank of the House of Islam, were an irrelevant nuisance. One by one the Mamluks rolled up the line of Crusader castles guarding the desert frontier. In 1271, they took the huge Crac des Chevaliers in Syria, where even Saladin had failed. Twenty years later, in 1291, the Mamluks were besieging Acre, the last Crusader toehold in the Holy Land. Christian knights and common people resisted street by street, house by house. When Acre fell, the Mamluks killed between 30,000 and 40,000 defenders, echoing the Crusaders' brutal capture of Jerusalem 192 years earlier. As so often in war, the cycle of savagery and savage reprisal had come full circle.

 

DID URI AVNERY'S "cruel old woman", history, doom the Latin kingdom from its outset? It is tempting to say, perhaps not. Like armies of occupation everywhere, the Crusaders went home little wiser about the peoples they had invaded. Those who settled, however, faced the new challenge of living, rather than dying, as Christians. Ordinary life leaves few written records and those we have are almost exclusively those of the Crusader or Muslim leaders. The resident Arabs, the "people of the land", barely rated a mention. Thus it was long assumed that the Crusaders lived in castles or walled cities. But who built the walls and castles? The Crusaders were soldiers, not stonemasons, and we know they were always critically short of manpower. The spades of Israeli archaeologists have unearthed many clues. Some records speak of forced labour by Arab prisoners, but as Ronnie Ellenblum of Hebrew University points out, after their savage conquest of Jerusalem, the Crusaders lived undisturbed until the benign reconquest by Saladin 78 years later, and then in relative peace until the invasion of the Turkish Mamluks in 1271. They knew far more peace than the Holy Land has known since 1917.

Prisoner labour must have been scarce, yet it was in the Latin Kingdom's early years that the great castles were built. The likeliest explanation is that the Crusaders paid Muslims to build them, thus stimulating Arab village prosperity. Employment points to at least mutual toleration. Ellenblum has studied some 200 Latin rural settlements, some for the first time, casting further doubt on the received theory. The settlers built grand villas, rather like European manor houses, but they were not fortresses. Their distribution, and the ruins of their churches, confirm that the Crusaders settled exclusively in areas that had been Christian before Islam arrived in Palestine, and continued to be so, first under Muslim, then Crusader, then again under more tolerant Muslim rule. Areas that were, and still are, predominantly Muslim the Latins left alone, apart from hiring labour there, and perhaps buying food and handicrafts.

How did this work, across the religious divide? Many of the Crusaders, we know, learnt Arabic from their wives, and soon discovered that the values enjoined by Islam were very like their own, indeed like those of all the universal faiths – the social control of violence, the defence of the weak, honesty in word and deal, respect for strangers who come in peace. Some, like the English Richard the Lionheart, were impressed by the soldierly simplicity of Islam on its home ground, as many military men have been since. Lionheart even scandalised bigots on both sides by proposing a European-style dynastic marriage, his sister Joanna to marry Saladin's brother al-Adil and the couple to rule the Holy Land as Muslim king and Christian queen. This bi-confessional compromise was ahead of its time, and still is, but clearly the two sides were beginning to see each other as human. People of different faiths, the old stones testify, can live side by side in peace.

But then another Crusade would be proclaimed, a new wave of zealots would arrive and the killing and reprisals would resume. Folk memory and mutual ignorance combine to keep such conflicts going, until one side or the other – or an opportunistic third party – prevails. Arabs have long made a yearly pilgrimage from Jericho to Jerusalem to recall their return to al-Quds, "The Holy", after Saladin recovered the city in 1187. The 800th anniversary in 1987 of the Muslim victory at Hattin saw a rally on the battlefield itself and meetings all over Palestine. Israelis, remembering Jewish suffering under the cross, are understandably puzzled and angry to be called Crusaders. But the taunt "Crusader/Zionist", meaningless in the West, resonates in Arab ears. The Crusaders came from Europe, settled in Palestine, fought hard – and in the end were driven out. If they held the Holy Land by God's will, then God must have changed his mind.

 

FOR A FEW days in October 1973 it looked as if the worst nightmare of the Israeli leadership had come to pass – a new Saladin had emerged among the Arabs. Or, in Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion's version, a new Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the brilliant soldier and political strategist who built modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman empire (and, hailing from Salonika, may have been of Jewish descent himself). On October 6, 1973, which by no accident was the Day of Atonement, holiest day of the Jewish year when many Israelis were at prayer, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal, while the Syrians simultaneously thrust into the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, 650 kilometres to the north. The roles of 1967 were reversed. Egypt and Syria had a clear plan; the Israelis, taken by surprise, wasted critical days in muddled and aimless manoeuvres before, with hard fighting, heavy losses and some American resupply, they eventually turned the tide. As surprised as any Israeli, I arrived with the outcome still unclear and set off by a series of lifts in Israeli trucks for the Sinai, which again seemed the greatest threat, although the Golan Heights were far closer to Israeli settlements in Galilee. A Syrian missile killed my friend andSunday Times colleague Nick Tomalin, 42, during a chaotic battle on the Golan on October 17, 1973.

At first I could get nowhere near the canal. Massed Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft missiles on the Egyptian bank held the Israeli Air Force (IAF) 25 kilometres off the canal while the Egyptian army got across in rubber boats, then by pontoon bridges. They carried light anti-tank missiles that knocked out 153 Israeli tanks in the first day of fighting. Thirty-five IAF aircraft were also lost. When I finally reached the battlefield, the rocky slopes of Sinai were littered with burnt-out tanks and striped with the guidance wires of rockets. Here was a new military lesson: infantrymen with shoulder weapons, ready to stand their ground, could stop the hitherto invincible Israeli tanks. But when the Egyptians, tempted by success, sortied out from under the cover of their missiles, their tanks in turn were caught by Israeli fighter-bombers and some 250 were destroyed in the biggest air-tank battle since World War II. On the night of October 15-16, Israeli commandos crossed the canal in rubber boats and were followed by tanks on rafts. Next day, the Israelis got a pontoon bridge over and from the bridgehead on the Egyptian side – "Africa", they called it – fanned out north and south, rolling up the Egyptian missile batteries as they went. Wearing a WW2 British steel helmet the Israelis had hoarded from some previous war, I crossed on an Israeli Army truck. The pontoon bridge carried the plate of a firm in Nottingham – "modest pickings," I wrote, "for the Power that so recently called the shots in these parts". We bumped down Egyptian roads towards Suez City, seeing smoke rising from a failed Israeli commando raid. Unexpectedly, we were stopped by a familiar figure stepping from a helicopter. It was Moshe Dayan, still Israeli Defence Minister, his eye patch rimmed in desert dust. "Does this mean peace, general?" someone asked. "We're down here fighting the Egyptians," Dayan said. "They attacked us. We seem to be doing quite well. We'll think about the philosophy later."

Back in Tel Aviv, I found the hosannas of 1967 replaced by strained silence. Then the Israelis had been united, first in fear, then in what they took to be miraculous deliverance. Now they were nervous, suspicious even of each other. The fifth Israel-Arab war – my third – had been more costly than the others put together. Losses had been unsustainable for a small country – 2569 dead, 7251 wounded, 314 captured and later exchanged. The Arabs suffered some 50,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner, from vastly bigger populations. After their disastrous start, the Israeli forces had won their hardest fight, but the sense of limitless possibilities of 1967 had gone, never to return. Within a year both Dayan and Prime Minister Golda Meir were out of office, blamed for gross failures of intelligence and judgement. With Dayan went his moderate policies of "open bridges" (to and from Jordan) and "invisible occupation". Who had led the counter-crossing of the canal and so saved the day? For the first time, I heard lavish praise for Ariel Sharon, another retired general turned politician, recalled to service for the emergency and already a highly controversial figure.

Sharon is the quintessential Sabra, named after the prickly pears that grow in the Negev Desert. Born in Israel, son of a farmer of Russian origin, Sharon carried a rifle from the age of 14 as a guard at his father's farm. These "watchmen" (and sometimes women) had evolved a rough style of frontier deterrence still favoured by many Israelis, for lack of anything more constructive. If shots were fired into a Jewish settlement by Palestinian infiltrators or wandering Bedouin, they poured a fusillade into the nearest Arab village. Sharon distinguished himself leading a platoon in the 1948 war, became a regular soldier, and first raised controversy seven years later as a 27-year-old major leading, and then commanding Unit 101, set up to make cross-border reprisals for attacks on Jewish settlements by infiltrators from Egypt and Jordan. On its first operation, Unit 101 killed 40 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip; next, 69 people, mostly women and children, in the Jordanian village of Kibiya. Infiltrations resumed after a few weeks and an international outcry convinced Dayan, then Sharon's boss, that in future only military installations should be targeted. The Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld in The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defence Force (New York 1998), quotes Arthur Koestler (briefly a Zionist) on Sharon's generation in Thieves in the Night (New York, 1946): "The humanitarian hormones of the mind are absent ... Their parents were the most cosmopolitan race on earth – they are provincial and chauvinistic. Their parents were sensitive bundles of nerves with awkward bodies – their nerves are whipcords and their bodies those of a horde of Hebrew Tarzans roaming the hills of Galilee. Their parents were intense, intent, overstrung, over-spiced – they are tasteless, spiceless, unleavened and tough ... As against that they know all about fertilisers and irrigation ... they know how to shoot and fear neither Arab nor devil." And, as Koestler made clear, they are little interested in the spiritual core of Judaism. "Circumcised Cossacks," the Israeli novelist Amos Oz calls the Sabra generation.

At first things seemed to go better for Israel. Anwar al-Sadat, successor of the vainglorious Nasser, had planned his 1973 war for a clear, limited political objective, one he had already offered in 1971. The closing of the Suez Canal, as long as Israel and Egypt held opposite banks, was choking the Egyptian economy (Dayan called it "a foot on Egypt's neck"). But the massive Cold War backing of Egypt by the Soviet Union and Israel by the US looked like making the Canal closure permanent. Sadat sought to unblock the stalemate by showing that Israel's invincibility could not be taken for granted, and succeeded. Secret peace talks began. In 1977, Sadat addressed the Israeli Knesset (parliament), and in 1979 signed a peace treaty recognising Israel (but not its borders) in return for the return of the Sinai to Egypt. The treaty was not the "welcome to the Middle East" some Israeli commentators hailed, but a frosty recognition of reality. As the Crusaders had found, Egypt is too big and populous to be conquered, while Sadat's forcing of repeated mobilisations and the steady haemorrhage of Jewish casualties along the canal were eroding Israeli morale. Sadat took in no Palestinians, and left his Syrian ally to fend for itself. By signing, he had betrayed Arab solidarity, his critics said, for Egypt's national interests. In 1978, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Israeli Prime Minister and former terrorist Menachem Begin; on October 6, 1981, the seventh anniversary of his gamble on war, Sadat was assassinated in Cairo by fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, has been battling his own home-grown Islamic fundamentalists ever since.

The Yom Kippur War was just as fateful for Israel. Another Arab coalition had again failed to subjugate the Jewish state and, without Egypt, seemed unlikely ever to do so, although the pre-1967 borders were as vulnerable as ever. "I can't see any peace that would bring a Jewish settlement within range of an Arab gun," I wrote in 1973, and I have seen none since. Paradoxically, the greater immediate security after 1973 shattered the national unity that alone had enabled Israel to survive since 1948.

As ever in the Holy Land, the basic determinants are military. The kingdom of the ancient Hebrews, "Greater Israel" as it is now called, is in effect an island; with the Sinai desert to the south, the Mediterranean to the west, the mountains of Lebanon (minus the narrow coastal corridor the Crusaders used) to the north, and to the east the Arabian desert beyond the Great Rift Valley through which the Jordan flows. This desert-bounded dry island has no significant internal barriers (the Jordan is fordable almost anywhere). Most nation states, their borders long hammered out by war, are either islands, like Britain, Australia and, in effect, the US, peninsulas guarded by mountains like Spain and Italy, or empires sheltered by immense distances, like Russia and China. Nations without natural defences – Poland, Manchuria and the fragile countries of Flanders, for example – have historically been subject to invasion, partition, displacement round the map and sometimes disappearance, temporary or permanent. This was the frequent fate of the biblical Hebrews. Given non-negotiable geography (which is the hand of God, in some theologies) there is little prospect of the Holy Land being shared by two hostile, truly independent states, free to make outside alliances, as Cyprus, Ceylon or Ireland attest. The tough Israeli paratroop general Raphael Eytan, credited with stopping the Syrians on the Golan Heights, put the army view bluntly in a radio interview. The IDF, he said, could not guarantee the security of the state without retaining control of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This implied at least a strong military presence throughout "Greater Israel". But how to achieve it? Few Israelis these days want to be farmers, preferring the comforts and pleasant opportunities of city life. The kibbutz movement, by which Lesser Israel was originally settled by Jews, is all but dead. A solution, of sorts, began to appear soon after the Six-Day War, suspected by few. It was fundamentalism, this time Jewish.

 

THE ISRAELI ARMIES I saw in action were far from devout; the presence of women, unchaperoned and carrying weapons, alone was enough to scandalise the ultra-orthodox. But since the time of Saladin there has always been a small community of religious Jews living in and near Jerusalem, supported by alms from the Jewish Diaspora, studying, praying and awaiting the coming of the Messiah. MySunday Times colleague Philip Jacobson wrote about them as "Israel's Jewish Problem". Conspicuous in black hats and wearing long beards, they viewed the secular state of Israel as blasphemous, neither Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, nor Golda Meir being the promised Messiah.

Slowly and unobtrusively, a new doctrine arose among the devout, taught by a charismatic family succession, Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook, originally from Poland, and his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook. They saw the state of Israel, despite its secular and socialist origins, as part of the divine plan to gather all Jews into the Promised Land where, free of the corruption of the Gentile world, they would return to true, that is, to their brand of rabbinic Judaism, and prepare for the kingdom of God. The Almighty, on this account, had visited the plague of war on modern Israel for failing to carry out his plain purpose – a reprise of the Crusaders' Deus Vult!(God wills it!) A Kook disciple, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, explained this view: "In 1967 [the Six-Day War] God gave us a unique opportunity. But the Israelis did not seize it. They did not colonise the newly conquered land. They left all the options open. It's as if they had refused the offer of the Almighty while at the same time thanking him. Therefore God inflicted upon Israel the sufferings of the Yom Kippur War."

Another disciple of the Kooks, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, had already anticipated Israel's expansion into the occupied West Bank only days after the Six-Day War, when he drove to Hebron, home to 85,000 Arabs, and squatted for six months in the Park Hotel. (I drove around the West Bank about the same time in a Mini Moke with Israeli numberplates and encountered no trouble from either side.) Levinger then moved to a vacant Jordanian army base and, with Rabbi Waldman, built a settlement, Kiryat Arba (the biblical name of Hebron), a paradigm for much that has happened in the Holy Land over the centuries. The traditional resting place of the Patriarch Abraham and his sons, Isaac and Jacob, King David's capital for seven years, Hebron is a site of deep significance to the three religions inspired by these events. In 1267, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars closed the Tomb of the Patriarchs to all but Muslims, although a small community of Jews continued to live nearby. In 1929, Arabs rioting against continued Jewish immigration under the British Mandate, murdered 67 Hebron Jews. In 1967, exactly 700 years after Baybars closed the tomb, the occupying Israelis reopened it to all faiths. In 1994, Dr Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Brooklyn, USA, murdered 39 Muslims at prayer in the tomb with a sub-machine gun, before he was disarmed and killed by survivors. Today, a few hundred settlers, supported by gifts from America, live in Hebron, guarded by some 6000 Israeli conscript soldiers. The settlers are exempt from military service and the curfews and roadblocks that impede their Arab neighbours. Only 2 per cent of Israelis share their religious views, but successive Israeli governments, either dependent on religious parties' votes or, as Jews, at least understanding their motives, have tolerated them, and settlements like Kiryat Arba dot the West Bank hilltops, linked by military roads closed to almost all Arabs.

In 1977, the long rule of Ben Gurion's Labour Zionists faltered when Menachem Begin, leader of the Likud (Unity) party became prime minister. Likud espouses the Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky – another journalist, and an exponent of late 19th-century physical romanticism (he distinguished the heroic "Hebrew" of the future from the pathetic ghetto "Yid" of his native Russia) – who advocated the forcible expulsion of non-Jews from Greater Israel and its resettlement, behind an "iron wall of Jewish bayonets", with Jews from the Diaspora. In the 1930s, Jabotinsky founded the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organisation), an underground group using terrorism, the weapon of the weak, against both Arabs and the British, in one attack planting a bomb in a Haifa market crowded with Arab civilians. His successor as head of the Irgun, Begin, a lawyer from Warsaw, was the only Israeli leader to have had a personal escape from the Holocaust, in which his parents and brother perished. Perhaps understandably, in Begin's mind, the resistance of Palestinian Arabs (whom he famously called "two-legged animals") to Jewish settlement had fused with the Holocaust, in which Muslims had taken no part. As a lawyer he argued that if an Arab claim to any part of Palestine was good, it was good for all of Palestine; conversely, claims by Jews to any part of the Land of Israel were good for all of it. At his inauguration Begin kissed the younger Rabbi Kook's hand in homage. One of Begin's first appointments was the recently retired General Ariel Sharon, already active in Likud politics, as agriculture minister. Sharon was indeed born on a farm, but the main project of his ministry was not farming but planting new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, strengthening Israel's hold on them. Sharon's stated motive was security. Neither he nor Begin were noticeably devout but the settlements were backed by the small religious parties that had entered Likud or joined it in coalitions – not that they agreed on things of the spirit, but because their views coincided on what should happen here on earth. Thus was forged Israel's military-religious complex, the first since the Medievil European wars of religion, that, with short interruptions, has shaped Israel's Arab policies ever since.

 

ITS FIRST AND perhaps predictable fruist was yet another war. Israel's 1979 peace with Egypt and the fighting between King Hussein and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, after the PLO tried to take over Jordan in "Black September" 1970, led to 15 years of secret negotiations and eventually a peace treaty. This left only Lebanon as a base for the cross-border infiltrations, shelling and rocketing that have tormented Israel since its inception. Appointed Defence Minister, Sharon set about planning a typically audacious remedy, invading Lebanon and installing a Christian-dominated protectorate in Beirut that would expel the PLO and secure Israel's northern border. The result was a long disaster for Israel, its first defeat, and a warning of what can happen to insensitive outsiders trying to remake a religiously divided Arab state. Operation Peace in Galilee, as Begin called it, followed the dismal pattern becoming familiar in Middle Eastern wars. The southern part of Lebanon, called by Israelis "Fatahland" (after Yasser Arafat's Fatah component of the PLO) had become a Palestinian sanctuary from where commando raids, unarguably acts of war, were mounted against northern Israel. On June 6, 1982, the 15th anniversary of the Six-Day War, Sharon launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. The ostensible causus belli (van Creveld calls it "paper-thin") was the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London three days earlier. The army Sharon sent into Lebanon was the biggest and, after a decade of American bounty, most lavishly equipped Israel has ever put into the field. Progress was rapid. The Syrian Air Force that had controlled the air space over Lebanon was shot out of the skies within days. The Crusaders' Beaufort Castle fell to a costly commando assault. Then, nearing Beirut, the offensive stalled. Thousands of tons of bombs rained on the city, killed many civilians, cut off water and food supplies and turned fashionable streets into rubble. After six weeks of fighting, and US mediation to save what was left of Beirut, Arafat, the PLO higher leadership and some 11,000 militants were allowed to depart. On September 14, the newly installed Maronite Christian president, Bashir Gemayel, on whom Sharon was relying to make peace with Israel, was assassinated. Skirmishes had already broken out between Israelis and the Lebanese villagers who had originally welcomed them by throwing rice. Soon, a ragbag of Lebanese militias was ambushing Israelis, and each other, in the towns and countryside in an Iraq-style chaos. Support for the war by Israelis, 93.3 per cent before it began, fell to 45 per cent by October and 34 per cent by December 1982. A jaunty pop hit of six months earlier, "I went to Lebanon a-hunting Arabs, Hei-ho hei-ho", went off the air. The operation was denounced asmilchemet brera, war deliberately chosen, close to a crime for many peaceable Israelis.

The reputations of Begin and Sharon sank further when news broke of an ugly massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Beirut on September 16-18, 1982. The day before, Israel had invaded West Beirut and surrounded the camps, warrens of makeshift buildings and crooked alleys. Hoping to reduce Israeli casualties, the generals on the spot entrusted the screening of the camps for PLO suspects to the militia of the Lebanese Phalange, a distant relative of the party that backed General Franco in Spain. Enraged by the murder of their leader Gemayel, the Phalangists butchered between 600 and 700 Palestinians, many of them women and children, in two days. The Israelis took no part, but neither did they intervene, although Israeli paratroopers were in the camps at the time or soon afterwards. A week later, 400,000 Israeli protesters demonstrated in Tel Aviv. In Beirut, an Israeli colonel refused an order to fire on civilians and was relieved of his command. Hundreds of reservists refused to serve in Lebanon, the first such refusal in Israel's history. An inquiry found that Israel's commanders should have foreseen trouble in the camps and prevented it. Sharon and two subordinates were asked to resign. In September 1983, the Israelis left Beirut, with little achieved. Begin fell into depression, resigned the following month and rarely left his home in Tel Aviv before he died in 1992. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in stages, under constant guerilla harassment. Christians fled abroad. Southern Lebanon is again Fatahland, with a high fence guarding the Israeli side. The Lebanese fiasco cost Israel 650 dead, 3000 wounded and much damage to its national unity and reputation – and again demonstrated a high-tech army's vulnerability to guerilla tactics or, pejoratively put, to terrorism.

In 1987, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began an intifada, a "shaking off" that soon spread to the West Bank, the first Muslim resistance there to Israeli occupation – and, ominously, the first inspired, not by Arab nationalism, but by martyrdom-seeking Muslim Shi'ah fundamentalists. In November 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, architect of Israel's stunning 1967 victory and a winner, with Shimon Peres and Arafat, of the Nobel Peace Prize for their first tentative steps towards a Palestinian state, was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a young Jewish fundamentalist of Kookist views. In 1998, after Sharon, then opposition leader, made a provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a new intifada broke out, and has since intensified to almost daily bombings and reprisals. By its fourth anniversary, September 28, 2002, 2400 Palestinians and 860 Israelis, almost all civilians, had died. The arithmetic resemblance to the failed Lebanon incursion is obvious to all parties.

Israel's legendary defence forces, historian van Creveld writes, have suffered the worst blows to reputation and morale since they began policing the occupied territories, never a duty for which soldiers are well-fitted. "All but forgotten," he writes, "is the fact that this high-tech but soft, bloated, strife-ridden, responsibility-shy and dishonest army, was once the fighting force of a 'small but brave' people [whose] spokesmen's declarations were believed as if they were gospel truth ...Things have deteriorated so far that most of the Israeli written media will publish only negative stories about the IDF. Those who try to put in a word to the contrary risk having phone receivers slammed in their ears.

"Rabin's assassination was the warning light. Should Israel persist in its current course of trying to hold on to the Occupied Territories and their inhabitants, in the long run it will come down to civil war, not only of Jew against Jew but also of some Jews and some Arabs against some other Jews and some other Arabs; unlike France and the US, it has neither the Mediterranean Sea nor the Pacific Ocean to provide space and save it from its fate. He who is wise should never engage the weak for any length of time. He who, whether through his fault or that of others, already is involved in such a situation should consider ways to end it as fast as possible."

Then, the most anguished of all van Creveld's judgements: "In retrospect, the smashing victory of 1967 was probably the worst thing that ever happened to Israel. It turned a 'small but brave people' (Dayan's words during his radio address on the morning of June 5), who with considerable justification believed themselves fighting an overwhelmingly powerful coalition of enemies for dear life, into an occupying force complete with all the corrupting moral influences that this entails. The military lessons of the 'feat of arms unparalleled in modern history' began to be studied almost immediately. Not so its moral consequences, which were clear only to a very few – among them, rumour has it, Prime Minister [Levi] Eshkol, who within days of the capture of East Jerusalem was wondering how one would ever 'crawl out again'." Thirty-seven bloodstained years later, Israel has still not found a way to "crawl out".

 

HOW DID A project begun with such high hopes come to this? As we are now learning, the roots of the conflict go very deep, as deep as those of the human race. The discoveries of the Leakey family of physical anthropologists are showing that our species, homo sapiens sapiens, as we proudly classify ourselves, (but perhaps we are better described as killer apes), emerged onto the plains of Equatorial Africa some million years ago. Having no boats, we must have left Africa (minus a few stay-behinds) on foot, to fan out through the Earth. Then and now, the only practicable path was through the corridor between desert and sea we call the Holy Land. This alone should qualify it to be held in trust for the human species, as the door where we all came in. If it is not to be a museum patrolled by bored attendants, someone has to live there and that is where the conflicts begin.

The Holy Land is dry and stony with few rivers that go anywhere. It lies between two great river systems, those of the Tigris and the Euphrates in present-day Iraq and the Nile in Egypt, both able to support despotic rulers and their huge armies. The Holy Land itself is too small and arid to support a nation able to defend itself, and so its history has been a harsh one of invasion and counter-invasion, on average, one every 40 years or so for the past three millennia. Nothing beyond their names and legends remain of two of its peoples, the Philistines and the Canaanites, but we owe much to the first invaders to keep records, the ancient Hebrews. A marvellous compilation of poetry, history and philosophy (in the older sense of seeking the meaning of life), they make up the Hebrew scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament and to Muslims as the earlier revelation, completed by the last of God's prophets, Muhammad.

The cruel fate of the Hebrews has given us a powerful metaphor for life as most of us know it, of small people crushed by dark forces we cannot comprehend but somehow surviving, the indomitable human spirit at its most admirable. Then, in the fourth century BC, Greek invaders added their ideas of logic and impartial observation (and political democracy) to the mix that is our liberal-humanist world-view. Clearly, the descendants of these ancient teachers have at least good claims to the guardianship of the treasured land, but do we mean their physical or spiritual descendants, and who is to decide? Thus the endless conflict.

Theodor Herzl, whose 1896 pamphlet "The Jewish State: A Solution to the Jewish Problem" inspired political Zionism, was a liberal humanist of impeccable credentials. The root cause of recurring anti-Semitism, he argued, was that Jews had no nation-state of their own. "The nations in whose midst Jews live are all either covertly or openly anti-Semitic," he wrote. "All men should have a homeland," urges a character in Herzl's utopian novel Old-New Land (1902). Jews and sympathetic non-Jews with something to contribute were both to be welcome in Herzl's proposed Jewish state. "Liberalism, Tolerance, Love of Mankind" were to be its watchwords. "Only then will Zion be truly Zion." The villain of his novel, Geyer, is a cleric described as a "bigoted pietist, a sanctimonious demagogue, a liar and impostor. He wants to introduce intolerance into our ranks, the blasted scoundrel!"

Herzl's warning is clear: beware of fundamentalists, especially Jewish ones. Herzl was right to be shocked by the outrageous frame-up of the Jewish staff captain Alfred Dreyfus but premature in saying that, in France, the Rights of Man, "the edict of the Great Revolution, had been revoked". Dreyfus's cause was taken up by the courageous Catholic novelist Emile Zola whose open letter, J'accuse, is the best remembered piece of journalism of all time. Zola risked prison and exile by fearlessly naming names, which finally brought justice. Dreyfus served seven years on Devil's Island but was eventually exonerated, awarded the Legion of Honour, and ended his military career as a lieutenant-colonel. Zola warned that, heinous as it had been, a fate far worse than that of Dreyfus threatened Jews. "Anti-Semitism exists among young people. This vile poison has already unsettled new minds, new souls. How sad, how worrying for the new century [the 20th] that is about to begin!" The Holocaust proved him all too prescient.

As to the possibility that the people already in Palestine – Herzl calls them "indigenous labourers" – might one day claim their own nation-state, Herzl was innocently optimistic. Jewish skills, Jewish capital would lift them from their degraded position under Turkish tyranny, he predicted. He wrote at the zenith both of Europe's nationalism and self-satisfaction. Herzl was a well-meaning visionary who was, like all of us, a child of his time.

 

THE POLITICAL REALISATION, against all odds, of Herzl's Jewish state began with an squalid deal typical of late European colonialism. On May 9, 1916, Sir Mark Sykes of the British Foreign Office and his French counterpart, Georges Picot, together with the Czar's tottering government, signed a secret treaty carving up the still unliberated Turkish Empire. France was to get Syria and a helping of the oil of Mesopotamia; Britain bagged the rest of the future Iraq, including Baghdad, the ports of Haifa and Akka and northern Palestine; the Czar put his marker on some neighbouring Turkish provinces, while southern Palestine, because of its religious significance, was to be under an international regime – this last to avoid Catholic-Protestant squabbling and to satisfy the Czar's claim to protect Orthodox Christians. Later, when the Bolsheviks made the deal public, the British Foreign Office defended the Sykes-Picot Agreement as "imperative expediency". The year before it was signed, the British high commissioner in Cairo, Sir Henry MacMahon, had written to the aged Sherif Hussein of Mecca, head of the Hashemite clan descended from the Prophet himself, promising that Britain was "prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs", specifically excluding Palestine, after Turkey had been expelled from Arabia. Then, in a further burst of munificence with future conquests, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued the declaration whose every careful word has been parsed like Holy Writ ever since: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights of and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

When it all began to go wrong in the 1930s, and Britain, with 100,000 troops in a quagmire in tiny Palestine, quaked at the prospect of another global war, much was made of the contradictions that in hindsight glare from these evasive words. The rights of "existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine"– a euphemism for Arabs – have clearly been prejudiced, as we have often seen, although how this came about is furiously contested; while reports of a worldwide rise in anti-Semitism now throw doubt on the second caveat as well. Were these promises just another underhand trick by Albion perfide? The indispensable authority is the American historian Barbara Tuchman, sympathetic to both the Zionist and Arab positions and, incidentally, one of the legion of Jewish scholars who have truly been a light unto the nations these many centuries. (Her 1956 book Bible and Sword was reissued in paperback in 2001.) Tuchman makes short work of the many fanciful reasons that have been advanced for the Balfour Declaration: to curry favour with American Jews (who were prospering and, then, mostly anti-Zionist); to win the rising Russian left (opposed to all imperial schemes except its own); to reward the Polish-born scientist Dr Chaim Weizmann whose synthesising of acetone at Manchester University kept British guns booming during the First World War, much as Dr Fritz Haber's ammonia did for Germany's. No, no, no, writes Tuchman. Instead, she points to Britain's well-documented desire for a military presence north of the Suez Canal, then seen as the jugular of the now vanished British superpower, and the consequences of four centuries of Bible reading by pious British protestants As long ago as 1840, 20 years before Herzl was born, the evangelical Anglican Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury was promoting a plan for the return of the "Jewish nation" to its ancestral home in Palestine although, like Balfour, he made no mention of a Jewish state, "the fatal error that was to cause all the trouble", Tuchman writes. Lord Shaftesbury's motive was an interpretation of certain New Testament texts now current among fundamentalist American Christians, that the return of the Jews to Israel was a necessary precondition for the second coming of Christ and his acceptance by all, Jews included. "[Shaftesbury's] peculiar ideas of Jewish submissiveness were not only the product of his own time," writes Tuchman, "but also the product of his own thinking, which regarded the Jews as somehow passive agents of the Christian millennium." Was this why the Balfour declaration was issued 77 years later? Tuchman is shrewd, but not unkind about a still-evident aspect of the British national character. "They did it," she writes, "because they intended to take Palestine anyway for its strategic value; but they had to have a good moral case." English speakers have no monopoly on stressing the best among a mixed bundle of motives; but because we have ruled our island roosts for so long we may, perhaps, be quicker than most to accept our flattering self-evaluations, where other peoples clearly do not.

Tuchman is equally dismissive of the charge that no Arabs were consulted about the promises made to the Jews, describing events as they appeared to the participants rather than to posterity. Such authority as there was among the Arabs was that of Sherif Hussein and his son, Feisal, the military leader of the Arab revolt. In 1918, there was a meeting under the stars near Amman between the tireless Weizmann and the Emir Feisal, with T.E. Lawrence as interpreter and fixer, at which a common understanding was struck. Later, in Paris, Feisal and Weizmann presented a joint document in which the emir promised "all necessary measures to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale". Feisal sent a letter to an American Zionist delegation in Paris saying that the Arabs wished the Jews "a most hearty welcome home", adding that "there is room in Syria for us both" and "indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other". The emir probably had in mind the meek Jews who had lived peaceably among Arabs since the time of Saladin, combined with the evident learning and enthusiasm of Weizmann, reports of available Jewish wealth and jubilation at the defeat of the hated Turks.

Palestine had long been a backwater under Turkish rule and as Balfour said, it was a "small notch" – about 1 per cent – of the Arab lands newly freed, with Arab help, by British arms. Feisal could have had no idea of the whirlwind of passionate energy that was about to arrive in the Holy Land, Zionism then being little more than a dream and the inevitable rise of Palestinian counter-nationalism even further over the horizon. Years later, I travelled by British-made Saladin armoured car to interview Feisal's grandson King Hussein in his modest palace in Amman, then torn by street fighting between Jordan's mostly Bedouin Arab Legion andfedayeen, the "men of sacrifice" of the Palestine Liberation Organisation – "Beds versus Feds" in crude reporters' slang. "They left us no choice," said the doughty little king in his Sandhurst-polished English. "Either we governed Jordan, or they did." His ancestor, the all-too-human Muhammad, had reportedly said, "Had I been able to foresee the future, I would have been wiser." The Prophet has not been the only one.

 

MUST STRIFE IN the Holy Land go on forever? If there is a way forward, it does not lie in our liberal-humanist compromise with the dark side of religion, namely that it is a matter for private judgement and the toleration Herzl advocated. Land claims based on Scriptural texts, especially if backed by atomic threats, rule this out. The same applies to the elimination of religion from our lives. When this solution was tried it led to the Terror of the French Revolution, while the Stalin and Mao brands of supposedly rational politics – and no doubt Hitler's, too, if he had survived – produced mummified leaders, sacred sites and infallible texts. Or turned, in other words, into new religions.

Why? No human society has ever been found without a religion or some transparent substitute. This tells us that it must be a product of evolution, necessary to our survival in the long march from Africa, and hard-wired into our brains – the "God-shaped hole" Jean-Paul Sartre identified. Why? Because in all those million years our ancestors hunted and gathered in mobile groups, kept together by moral codes handed down from some mythical ancestor. That the same divine power caused lightning, thunder, fire, flood, birth, death and the other events of the natural world was obvious and so was his (or her) support when we fought rival tribes for the best hunting and gathering grounds. War and religion were born together and are seldom far apart in the emotional, Stone-Age depths of our minds.

What is fragile is our attempt to tame these dark forces by reasoning together, now barely three millennia old. Few of us are eager to make the supreme sacrifice for sweet reasonableness, while many, high-minded young males and a few women can be persuaded by their self-interested elders to die for the tribal symbols of flag, faith and fatherland. The texts used by rival fundamentalists are all different and as mutually incomprehensible as tribal languages. What they have in common is a mind-set, the loving bond among insiders, hostility towards outsiders. It is this retribalisation of what are intended to be faiths – more than one, alas – preaching universal human solidarity that we know, and should fear, as fundamentalism. In their different ways they are all rejections of what their followers see as our self-indulgent, violent, aimless modern lives. Our tolerant world view, that has built for us (fundamentalists included) our complex and diverse societies, is now under its ugliest threat in the place where our travels began and our civilisation, such as it is, emerged. No wonder we cannot wrench our eyes away. Not for the first time, the peoples of the Holy Land suffer for us all.

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