The Third World War is now

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The Third World War is now
Published Wednesday, Apr. 07 2004, 12:00 AM EDT

A friend of mine recently visited a family in a small Palestinian village on the border between Israel and the West Bank. It was, he said, like walking into a real-life version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The table was laid, the dinner was ready -- but no one was there to eat it.

He continued through the house, eventually finding the family on the roof, huddled together, crying as they watched a bulldozer tear up their orchard. The parents and their children were watching their land and their livelihood disappear behind Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new eight-metre-high security fence, which has been erected throughout the country.
The driver of the bulldozer, an Israeli, said to them afterward, "For every tree I pulled out of the ground, it was like killing a person. It tore at my heart, but I am under orders."

The tragedy is that while they might be on opposite sides of the conflict, these are ordinary, moderate human beings whose lives are being ruined by governments, terrorism and the cruel, unilateral nature of international politics.
It is not only in this deeply troubled country that such problems occur. Across the Middle East, for every orchard that is ripped apart, there is an olive branch torn down.

The Iraqis have watched their constitution being changed to allow foreign companies to own 100 per cent of Iraqi assets, except natural resources; the Lebanese live under constant threat of an Israeli air strike; and two weeks ago, the world witnessed Sheik Ahmed Yassin being assassinated.
Sheik Yassin was the founder of the terrorist group Hamas. I abhor suicide bombings; they are an affront to humanity. It must be remembered, however, that to his many supporters in the Islamic world he was an important spiritual leader.

Terrorism, violence, the proliferation of weapons, human-rights abuses and preventable or avoidable conflicts -- all these issues are debated day and night on Arab television. Across the region, millions perceive a denial of the inherent dignity that we all share -- equally -- as creatures of God, living under one sun, on a fragile earth upon which we all depend.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the mood is becoming ugly. In Jordan, where I live, and in countries throughout the Middle East, I witness the growing tensions and resentment every day.

Israel and Hezbollah are bombing in Southern Lebanon; in Syria there are conflicts between Kurds and Arabs; in the Gulf there are tensions between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Iran, still anchored on the axis of evil, gains strength, day by day, with Shia and other sympathizers around the world. The makings of a third world war are taking place in front of our eyes.

There are more than 40 so-called low-intensity conflicts in the world today. Maybe it is not the Third World War if you are living in Manchester or Stockholm, but if I were in Madrid when the bombs at the station went off, it would look very much like the Third World War to me.
What must it take to move away from the madness that is sweeping the region? The extremists are engaging more and more moderate citizens, who are becoming increasingly disillusioned and desperate. The blame for this cannot simply be laid at the West's door. We must also look closer to home.

The governments of the Middle East are losing touch with reality. While they fight to hold on to their position, the power vacuum is being filled by extremist movements. It is they who provide compensation for children who are killed in conflict, who provide soup kitchens to feed the starving and, in so doing, enlist an increasing number of supporters for their wars.

Make no mistake that this is a world war, albeit not like any we have seen before. The conflict is not being fought by regimented armies of men, but by individuals and by small terrorist cells on our streets and in our homes. The human race has now reached such a point that we are arguing the merits of killing a half-blind man in a wheelchair on one side, and the blowing up of 200 innocent Spanish citizens on their way to work on the other.

Significantly, neither action has brought us any closer to ending the conflict. Sheik Yassin's assassination has only served to elevate him to martyrdom, and will undoubtedly incite further violence in his name. We must remember the real danger of such an act, which could change the agenda from Palestinian-Israeli confrontation to that between Arabs, Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Sheik Yassin's killing, like every other killing, whether it is justified by states or by individual groups, takes us several steps away from what must be the overall objective: comprehensive peace in the region.

All initiatives in the Middle East, through NATO, the G8, the Developing 8 Muslim Countries (the D8), focus on what appears to be the business of the moment: security, security, security. I'd like to see them focus on dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.

What we really need is a Treaty of Versailles for our region, where everyone can sit down together and work towards peace. Experience has taught me that it is better for all parties to be at the table for peace talks, so that no one is left off the menu.

In this, the Middle East is at fault. Each nationality sits behind closed doors. I have sat with them, and all agree with the need for a multilateral security system. But when they come into the broad light of day, they are only worried for their own bilateral agreements with the United States. That attitude must change.

And the West, too, must adopt a different approach. Its member states need to move from the narrow day-to-day perspective of politics as usual and policies that deal with hard security -- the use of the military to control borders and regimes, and too great an emphasis on economics and profit.

My greatest fear is that if we continue to depend on the rule of force and on power as a deterrent, eventually we will be unable to disable violence.
We must become more sensitized to the concept of consequences: the consequences of poverty, illiteracy, oppression, lack of opportunity, despair and anger -- all of which can all lead to the contemplation of violence.

We are standing on the brink and that is something that binds us all together: the Israeli who thinks he will be killed by a suicide bomber, the Libyan by an air strike or the Westerner by a random terrorist attack.

So rather than fight a war on terror, why not wage a struggle for the rule of peace? The Arabic word hamas means zeal, but flip it on its head, to samah, and it stands for tolerance. Sometimes you just have to look at things in a different way.

Prince El Hassan bin Talal, brother of the late King Hussein of Jordan, is the moderator of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, president of the Club of Rome, and president of the Arab Thought Forum.