Did the Israelis do it?

Posted: May 06, 2002 12:00 AM
As the curtain closes on the question whether, at Jenin, the Israeli army committed war crimes, one guards against a cynicism that, in general, is welcome. Where there is no free press, one tends to ask: What is it that is being hidden?

The United Nations brought together a special unit to enter Jenin and investigate charges of war-criminal behavior. It has been all but formally disbanded. The reason for it? The Israeli government forbade it license to conduct an investigation on its own terms. The government of General Sharon protested that dissimulation was afoot and that until it was investigated and repaired, no entry into Jenin would be permitted. It is understandable that there should be suspicion.

Some years ago, appearing on television, Lawrence Eagleburger made a startling statement. Mr. Eagleburger had served as under secretary of state, briefly as secretary of state, and before that for a long stretch as ambassador to Yugoslavia.

"The trouble with dealing with the Yugoslavs," he said with extraordinary bluntness for a diplomat, is that "you can never" -- he emphasized the word -- "believe one word they tell you. You can travel from one faction to another bearing proposals, compromises, bribes, intimidations -- and they end up serving you no purpose."

In the current issue of National Review we hear from David Pryce-Jones, the eloquent and highly informed journalist who in 1973 wrote "The Face of Defeat," a book about the Palestinians.

He took the reader back to the Six Day War of 1967. It was then that a representative of the Council for Anglo-Arab Understanding, a pro-Arab lobby, protested that the Israeli army had massacred 200 Arabs in Gaza. The plaintiff was Mr. Michael Adams.

Pryce-Jones, doing journalistic and historical duty, was alarmed at the charge, Gaza being his beat. "So I investigated. The story had begun with Gazans themselves. For days on end, they escorted me helpfully through the crowded streets of Gaza City from one house to another in search of families with a missing relative. There was always one more address to be visited, and one more rumor to be explored, but we found neither victims nor burial place for the simple reason that none existed. The story was untrue."

Pryce-Jones' inquiry went beyond the streets of Gaza City. He found what he thinks now is a clue to understanding in these times. He found this in an unlikely book, the 19th-century memoirs of Isabel Burton, wife of the famous explorer and linguist Richard Burton. There was this sentence in her text: "Out of the very stones they will fabricate such a tower of falsehoods that you can only stand and gape in wonder and admiration at their fruitful invention."

The stereotype of the Arab as a born liar had been acknowledged, when Mrs. Burton wrote, by experienced English observers including Sir Henry Layard, the excavator of Nineveh, Field Marshall Kitchener and Lawrence of Arabia. We learn from Pryce-Jones that Mrs. Burton was exceptional in having the human sympathy to perceive "that the lying was a sign not of innate bad character but of creative self-defense in circumstances of relative weakness."

If correctly guided by such reasoning, "Palestinians know in some reserved part of themselves that the Israelis are normal human beings and only doing what they themselves would do if the situation of the two people were reversed." But to admit any such thing is to surrender a weapon, one which seems to be working on luminaries of the international community, including Kofi Annan, Christopher Patten, and U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, a Norwegian -- and Michael Adams. They see what was done in Jenin as "totally unacceptable and horrific beyond belief."

Twice in my 40 years of journalism I have been mistaken in doubting that atrocities were at the level claimed by critics of the regimes. I found myself unwilling to grant the alleged atrocities of the Greek generals and, a few years later, those of the Argentine military troika. I swore then not to express doubt where there was no independent press around for corroboration.

This time, even without that corroboration, I express doubt that the Jenin "massacre," at the dimension being charged, actually took place.