Lost between War and Peace
Edward Said travels with his son in Arafat’s Palastine
The principal Palestinian city on the West Bank is Ramallah, about ten miles north of Jerusalem. My parents and I spent the summer of l942 there. I recall it as a leafy, slow-paced and prosperous town of free-standing villas, largely Christian in population, served by a well-known Friends High School. Today it is the West Bank capital of the Palestinian Authority set up under Yasser Arafat as a direct result of the Israeli-PLO negotiations. Most of its Christian residents have been replaced by Muslims; it has considerably increased in size and is now full of office buildings, shops, restaurants, schools, institutes and taxis, all catering to ‘al-Dafah’, or ‘the Bank’ as it is known. But there are only a tiny number of hotels in Ramallah, nor is it any longer a resort. While I was there during the second half of March Mr Arafat’s office in Gaza announced that the West Bank was to be renamed the Northern District. No one I spoke to understood what that particular change signified. But it is true that more than most places, and despite their long history, the Palestinian territories seem to spawn new names, jargons, initials and shorthands. They are a feature of the unstable circumstances in which Palestinians now live.
My 24-year-old son Wadie works as a volunteer in Ramallah, at an NGO called the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Centre (DWRC), which is headed by a labour activist, Hassan al-Barghouti – the Barghoutis are probably the single largest family clan of Palestinians that exists anywhere; estimates of their number range from seven to twenty thousand, many of whom live in the US as well as other Arab countries. Wadie discovered the DWRC when he visited Palestine from Cairo during the winter of 1995. He is the older of my two children; his sister Najla (22) has just graduated from college. They were both born in the US and grew up in New York City, and only Wadie has developed a consuming interest in the Arab World, the Arabic language and, of course, Palestine. At 14 he asked us if he could be tutored in Arabic, and over the next five years, culminating in a year of intensive study on a Fulbright in Cairo, he acquired a hard-won mastery of the language. His exploratory visits to the Occupied Territories from Cairo convinced him that he wanted to know more about the new, post-Oslo Palestine; and having settled on the DWRC as the place to work, he moved to Ramallah last September. Barghouti gave Wadie and Rudiger, a German volunteer, a tiny unfurnished house rent-free, plus $100 a month, which Wadie supplemented by producing English translations for academics, researchers and journalists.
In the meantime, the peace process has continued to unfold. I was an early dissenter from what I saw as a poor deal for Palestinians; for the past two decades I had had few doubts that a negotiated political settlement was the only option for our struggle with Israel, but after the Gulf War, and Arafat’s disastrous alliance with Saddam Hussein, I had lost confidence in his ability to represent our national interests. The Oslo Accords were the result of his crippled, but still potent, position, of which the Israelis took full advantage. Coincidentally, I was diagnosed with leukaemia, which in 1991 had made my exit from Palestinian politics (I had been a member of the Palestinian National Council since 1977) seem imperative, although I continued to write, mainly in the Arabic press, and speak on the subject.
We had gone as a family to Israel and the Territories in 1992 – my first trip since leaving West Jerusalem as a boy in late 1947. After Oslo I came to feel that the changing situation on the ground warranted another look; the notion of going as my son’s visitor was attractive: I could assess what was taking place through his eyes as someone participating in the life of the new post-intifada, post-peace accords generation. He had been there almost seven months when I arrived this year during a sustained spell of unusually cold and wet weather; my wife, Mariam, joined us several days later. The February and March bomb outrages had brought down on the Territories the closures, arrests and all-round discomforts that made life for everyone extremely hard. While we were there Peter Hansen, the Danish commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main aid organisation serving Palestinians, spoke out strongly about the dangers – including starvation – of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Ramallah itself had been free of Israeli soldiers since December, but what I hadn’t quite bargained for was how isolated it – like the other six ‘liberated’ Palestinian towns – had become.
The maddening complexities of the post-Oslo West Bank map provided for three types of area, not counting Jerusalem, which Israel considers entirely its own. Area A is about 1 per cent of the West Bank; it includes Ramallah and the five other main towns in the West Bank, except for Hebron. Area A is under the PA’s jurisdiction. Area B, a network of four hundred villages and adjoining rural areas comprising 27 per cent, is controlled by Israel with the PA as a very junior partner. Area C, which is made up of settlements, and connecting or ‘by-pass’ roads, is wholly Israeli, accounting for the balance of nearly 72 per cent. Palestinians now speak of their land almost entirely in terms of the Arabic initials Alif, Beh and Jeem. One difficulty is that you cannot go from some parts of Area A to others without going through Area B; this enabled the Israelis in early March to shut off access between towns like Ramallah in Zone A and Bir Zeit, where the leading West Bank university is located, in Zone B. Moreover, since the expanded area of Jerusalem – it takes up almost a quarter of the West Bank – requires a special permit to enter, people from Ramallah find it impossible to reach the city, or to get to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem. Entrances and exits to and from Gaza are also controlled by the Israelis – even Arafat has needed special permission to leave – so that negotiating the roads was for the average Palestinian a costly and often discouraging business. During the time I was there I made repeated, but ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to enter Gaza. In 1992 and 1993, before the peace process, Mariam and I did make it there; ‘peace’ has made movement much, much harder for Palestinians.
Wadie was helped in his daily movements by his US passport, although, like everyone else, he has to queue at all the Israeli barriers. Most of the time he gets around by ‘service’ taxi, where you pay for one seat rather than the whole car. During my visit we rented a car with a Jerusalem (i.e. Israeli) licence plate; this allowed us to go everywhere except Gaza. The change in road surface and width between Israeli and Palestinian areas is dramatic: roads in the former are wider, landscaped and cared for; in the latter they are extremely narrow, rutted and potholed. It’s as if one suddenly crossed over from Southern California into Bangladesh. Wadie remarked that, unlike the Palestinians, the Israelis had a mania for building roads; he reminded me of Kim in his knowledge of the back ways and shortcuts in the Ramallah area, and of each building, road and alley inside the city. At the wheel, he seemed to have the native’s sense of known, familiar space. It was the first time in our lives that I felt I was in his hands: I needed the feeling since I often felt disoriented and at a loss.
I stayed at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a well-established, elegant and comfortable haunt of journalists, security men and Israeli as well as Palestinian politicos. The Colony’s Palestinian staff was halved while I was there because West Bank workers were prevented from coming to Jerusalem by the closures. Yet the alleys of the Old City, a short walk from the Colony (past St George’s Cathedral where I was baptised, and St George’s School which was attended by all the males of my family), were clogged with Christian tourists, carrying dreadful little brown crosses in their hands with a look of rapt vacancy, wandering everywhere, oblivious to the 20th-century conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As the Holy Land’s nerve centre, and the likeliest source of future unrest, Jerusalem has never been especially attractive to me, although I was born there, as were my father, his father and several generations before them. There is something unyielding about the place that encourages intolerance; all sorts of absolute religious and cultural claims emanate from the city, most of them involving the denial or downgrading of the others.
I discovered that the line of Said anti-Jerusalem feeling persisted unbroken in Wadie, who comes to the city to translate for the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre (JMCC), an enterprising Palestinian outfit that produces daily press digests, reports and translations for journalists and diplomats in the East Jerusalem area. Like Wadie, the other JMCC workers have comparatively little trouble getting around, since their Jerusalem IDs and licence plates give them access to the city as well as to the West Bank. Even though the Arab and Israeli parts of Jerusalem were pulled together by Israel in 1967, East Jerusalem and its people lead segregated lives, hemmed in by the increasing number of Israeli Jews who have taken up residence there. The disparity in power, the differences in culture, language and tradition, the accumulated hostilities of the past century: all these keep Jews and Arabs apart. In addition, the hassle involved in simply moving about and staying alive makes it nearly impossible for ordinary Palestinians to interact with Israeli Jews. ‘I belong to this world because of where I work and live. There’s no way for me to see or talk to many Israelis who live inside their world,’ Wadie said on one of our first drives into Ramallah. The closures were designed to enforce the separation anyway, he added, and the sight of Israeli soldiers impassively stopping, then waving cars in (or out) hardly added to the likelihood of fraternisation. Wadie only spoke to them if they addressed him; and invariably he did so in English. ‘What should I say?’ I asked him. ‘Don’t say anything until they speak to you. Don’t even show your passport until they ask,’ he answered. I let him be the guide in this, except for the one time that a soldier appeared on my side of the car. ‘Passport,’ he said to me. When I showed it to him, he asked, ‘Where are you from?’ to which I almost replied ‘from here’ but prudently settled for ‘New York’ instead. ‘OK,’ he said noncommittally, and nodded us through.
We entered Area A through the mud and rain and drove along the main street of el-Bireh, the town just before Ramallah. ‘This is al-Manarah,’ Wadie said as we drove into a bustling square with a handful of indifferent-looking Palestinian policemen listlessly signalling one car after another to stop or go through. ‘You remember it, don’t you?’ he said. I certainly did not; what had once been a small quasi-rustic space had metastasised into a noisy cauldron of zinging cars, bicycles and motorbikes swooshing and swerving to miss an assortment of stationary peddlers’ carts, sprightly pedestrians and gigantic potholes. We were heading for the office of Ibrahim Abu Lughod, my oldest friend. After 40 years’ living and teaching political science in the US, Ibrahim had pulled up and returned to Palestine, first to teach and serve as academic vice-president at Bir Zeit, then to launch a research centre for curriculum development under the auspices of Unesco and the PA’s Education Department.
My son and my friend have a joshing, affectionate relationship which is conducted (this never fails to surprise me) in Arabic. I found the exchange between them about my visit slightly disconcerting as I was spoken about in the third person. ‘Where do you plan to take him?’ asked Abu Lughod. ‘I want him to see the shabab first,’ answered Wadie, ‘but we’ll have to wait till the afternoon.’
The shabab (‘young men’) are Wadie’s wards, a group of six young Gaza men, most of them Ibrahim’s former students at Bir Zeit, now living illegally on the West Bank. It is one of the many ironies of the peace process that Palestinians are more legally restricted in their movements and work than before. With a stroke of the pen Arafat agreed to the cantonisation of the Palestinians under his jurisdiction, while Israel retained control of who could go where. As a result of the closure, all Gazans have been confined to Gaza, even students who were in the middle of the semester in the West Bank. Wadie’s friends attended class surreptitiously during the day (not every day, not every week) but imprisoned themselves more and more in a small Ramallah apartment, unable to circulate freely, dodging the PA police, whose job it was to reinforce Israel’s closure by arresting and sending them back to Gaza.
‘Who else does he want to see?’ Ibrahim asked again. There is no question of sight-seeing in Palestine; and it is understood that I am here to meet with people, and they with me, since meetings are the life-blood of our political existence at present. ‘At some point,’ I interrupted, ‘I’d like to see a member of the PA. I’ve been criticising them publicly for two years. Perhaps they wouldn’t want to see me, but I’m interested in what they have to say.’ Both Wadie and Ibrahim laughed. It transpired that nobody at all on the West Bank would refuse to have dealings with a critic of Arafat. In the minds of everyone I meet the Arafat regime stands for autocracy, corruption and, especially now, an unpopular alliance with the Israelis in their obsessions with Hamas, with their own security and with holding onto as much Palestinian territory as possible.
The signs of discontent are visible. As we drove back towards Jerusalem on that first day, we passed the former headquarters of the Israeli Civil Administration in Ramallah, now the PA’s headquarters, with detention centres, interrogation rooms and barbed wire enclosures intact. Standing in the grey drizzle across the road was a group of about two hundred and fifty young people holding up signs saying ‘ Let the students go’ and ‘Detention for how long?’ Wadie pulled over about twenty yards up from the group. We greeted the obvious leader – a young man called Esam – and a colleague of Wadie’s at the JMCC, Imad Musa, whom I had met in January when he had interviewed me in my Columbia office. A moment later we encountered a friend, Yusif Nasir; a teacher at Bir Zeit, he said he had come to show solidarity with his students.
I was struck by the bleak pathos of the scene. During the intifada the same students had demonstrated against the Israelis: now they were protesting against the Palestinian Authority, which was using a cruder version of Israeli techniques as they picked up dozens of students under emergency military procedures recommended to Arafat by Israel and the US in the war against Hamas terrorism. Esam told me – more irony – that the protesters were a coalition of students from Hamas and Fatah who objected to the absence of democracy and to ‘political arrests’ by ‘the state apparatus’. One of their fliers asked the Authority to remember that ‘the law is supposed to protect citizens’ and demanded a critical reassessment of all those measures that had been imposed on it by ‘circumstances’. Polite, sorrowful, firm, idealistic – but ineffective against an obdurate dictatorship. One of the students told us that an official had come across to talk to them. ‘We haven’t really arrested or detained your friends,’ he was reported to have said: ‘They’re our guests.’ Everyone laughed.
Vol. 18 No. 19 · 3 October 1996
My colleague Edward Said’s searing account of Palestinian life and governance (LRB, 5 September) elides too many questions. Here are some. 1. For many years, indeed decades, he and virtually every Palestinian intellectual (including those with safe havens) muzzled their independent intelligence in the interest of the national struggle in full knowledge of the corrupt and authoritarian tendencies of the PLO in Lebanon and Tunis. Why, then, the tone of surprise about Arafat’s post-Oslo regime? 2. Said shows how the experience of occupation has skewed and narrowed Palestinian political possibilities (though, as he notes, no current Arab regime seems to be doing any better than the praetorian bunch governing from Gaza and Ramallah). Reciprocally, why does he not consider how the quotidian Palestinian actions he describes, including the banning of his prose, contuse the prospects of the Israeli peace camp? 3. He mentions the ‘outrages’ of the winter bus bombings in passing, as if they were not integral to the current suffering of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Yet, together with the Rabin assassination, these were the pivotal events of the past year, the ones that tilted the post-Oslo world into the current no-peace-no-war impasse, increasing local hardships and humiliations and sharply diminishing Palestinian political prospects. Is it credible to direct so much vituperation at Arafat and his obsession with security given this recent history? 4. Said continues to write, as he has for years, as if distinctions inside the Israeli political mainstream hardly matter. Peres or Netanyahu: who cares? The announcement on 9 September by Yossi Beilin, Peres’s most important aide in the post-Oslo negotiations, of the formation of the Mashov Circle inside the Labour Party – a group committed to a Palestinian state covering most of the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as the joint capital for it and Israel, and with the capacity to accept diaspora refugees into its territory – might give Said some pause.
Perhaps Arafat deserves the appellation ‘Papa Doc’ assigned by Said; I don’t know what Said knows or has experienced on his recent brief visits. Arafat’s wager on Oslo might indeed confirm the undesirable current situation as the long-term outcome. But the result is not yet fixed. How would Said counsel Arafat to proceed with the Likud Government? And where in circumstances of official impasse might partners for Beilin be found? Alas, not from the academic precincts of Morningside Heights.
Vol. 18 No. 20 · 17 October 1996
American Zionists have showered Israel with unfold money and worshipful support (most of it after 1967), yet have had little to say about the enormous injustices committed by Israel against the Palestinian people for the past fifty years. In 1948 two-thirds of the Palestinians were driven out of their country by Zionist armies; those who remained (now 20 per cent of Israel’s population) have been designated ‘non-Jews’ in the state of the Jewish people. Since 1967 Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza, destroyed their economics, planted illegal settlements, tortured, killed, demolished houses, expropriated land, all with scarcely a peep from the majority of American Zionists. In addition Israel has bombed civilian refugee camps, hospitals, schools, orphanages in Lebanon, and has behaved like an international gangster, supported of course by the US. I don’t recall a word from Ira Katznelson (Letters, 3 October) about all of that.
In 1993 Israel concluded a cheap and manifestly unworkable peace with the exhausted and discredited leader of the Palestinians, and liberal Zionists cheered loudly. While Peres and Rabin dismantled the few positive aspects of the Accords – between 1993 and 1996 they built four times as much as the Likud did in the settlements – and produced the bantustans that I described in my LRB article, Katznelson seems to prefer the easy accents of media hype and White House ceremonies to any principled reading of the text of the Oslo Accords or to any scrupulous examination of the Israeli Government’s behaviour.
Now he grandly pronounces that Palestinian intellectuals have in the past muzzled their critical intelligence. Perhaps he had expected to see our critiques in the New York Times, whose partiality to Palestinians is quite well-known. Never mind the literally billions of words in Arabic written against Arafat’s mismanagement and corruption since the late Sixties, or the splits in the movement in 1983, one of them leading to an intra-Palestinian war, or the continuing attacks on him by me and many others throughout the Eighties and early Nineties. The situation for critics of Arafat has not been easy. When I published The Question of Palestine in 1979, it could not be translated into Arabic precisely because it was thought to be too critical of the Arabs and the PLO. No Arabic translation has ever appeared. And because of my more recent criticisms, my books and articles have been banned by the Authority which Israel and the US have supported.
Katznelson acknowledges that the experience of occupation has ‘skewed’ life on the West Bank and Gaza – I would have thought deliberately ‘destroyed any prospect of normal civil life for Palestinians’ a more appropriate way of putting it – but instead of indicting Israel for following this policy for 29 years he says that the Israeli peace camp is ‘confused’. Hardly. For years this stalwart bunch prodded, cajoled, coaxed Palestinians – myself among them – into believing that they were interested in peace, although all they did was wring concessions out of Arafat. Then when the ‘peace’ came in 1993, and their Government shamelessly abused Palestinians even more, dividing up bits of land as a way of preventing any territorial continuity, thus holding onto 90 per cent of the West Bank in addition to annexing East Jerusalem, the peace camp essentially said nothing, as David Grossman had the honesty to admit last year. Don’t let’s hear any more about Mashov liberals until they do, for once, what Katznelson expects Palestinians to do, namely be more effective in stopping the abuses of their government. He scarcely seems to allow that Israel is a nuclear power, receives five billion dollars a year from the US, and is the master and bully of the Palestinians.
In any case, why are Palestinians expected to live without protest in undemocratic misery? As if the aftermath of the bus bombings were the first and only time that Israel’s disproportionate cruelty had been meted out against a civilian population – a cruelty that contravenes all the Geneva conventions, the laws of war and dozens of UN Resolutions – and as if the deliberate collective punishment of the Occupied Territories had never occurred before. The sufferings of Palestinians under Israeli rule occur because Israel claims the land (it has never ceded its claims to sovereignty, either in or outside the Oslo Accords) and wishes to control and punish a subservient population. Is it any wonder that mad acts of suicide and atrocity emanate from the wretched ghettos created by the Israeli occupation? A few Israelis (whom I mention in my book Peace and Its Discontents, which Katznelson seems not to have read) have acknowledged these facts, but far too few. And certainly not Yossi Beilin or Peres, who are master manipulators of the first water. Had Katznelson read Time magazine just before the elections he could have read my views on Netanyahu v. Peres. I argued there that I preferred the coarse but openly expressed brutality of Netanyahu to the equally brutal, but hypocritically concealed, policies of Peres. Does Katznelson remember Peres’s invasion of Lebanon last April, which produced 300,000 Lebanese refugees, or the attacks on civilians that led to the Cana massacre?
The events of the past few days starkly underline the inadequacies of the Oslo process, though with thousands of Palestinians wounded and scores killed, the chorus of let’s end the violence’ makes it seem that Palestinians are the aggressors. What about the 29-year-old violence of the occupation itself? Or the total absence of magnanimity and vision in the Oslo Accords which directly caused the uprising of those bloody September days? How long can Palestinians be expected to remain imprisoned in tiny ghettos, Israeli military areas and ever-expanding settlements?
Katznelson speaks of Arafat’s ‘long-term wager on Oslo’ as if that master of survival were Pascal. But the question asked today by millions of Palestinians is why, after three decades of occupation, their lives should be markedly worse after Oslo than before it. Are we expected to wait until Israel and its supporters say that the time is finally right for self-determination (Beilin has never said anything unequivocal about the end of occupation or Palestinian self-determination)?
I wouldn’t counsel Arafat to do anything today except resign, and take ail his minions and hangers-on with him. As for Beilin, I regard him as unsuitable for real peace; there are several Israeli individuals who, if they could gather the courage to come forward, would be a lot better. The academic precincts of Morningside Heights seem to me better used to face the facts squarely and not to resort to the clichés and snide accusations of Labour Party propaganda. The Labour Party lost the last election because a majority of Israelis preferred the no-peace programme offered by Netanyahu and were unconvinced by the Peres/Beilin strategy of making all sorts of prize-winning declarations about peace while doing exactly the opposite on the ground.
Vol. 18 No. 21 · 31 October 1996
Edward Said’s rage against the great injustices inflicted on the Palestinians (LRB, 5 September) is, of course, justified, and so is his pessimism over the prospects for peace in the region. But can anyone see a better policy for the future of the Palestinians than that of Yasser Arafat? Despite his many faults – and I do not think I could ever forgive him for the support he gave Saddam Hussein in his attempted genocide of my own people, the Kurds – Arafat had the courage to accept the only deal that grudging Israelis put in front of him in 1993. The alternative would have been to watch, from impotent exile in Tunis, Israel’s continued encroachment on the remaining third of the West Bank until, very soon, there would have been nothing left except a number of Palestinian towns surrounded on all sides by Jewish-owned land.
As a result of last May’s elections in Israel, we may now, in any case, be on the edge of the abyss. Earlier this month, I was present at a discussion with the Israeli Minister for Public Security, Mr Avigdor Kahalani, at the Royal United Services Institute. He said he would resign from the Netanyahu Cabinet if no progress were made with the Palestinians. Yet he also made it clear that his notion of progress was to give the Palestinians only a limited measure of municipal autonomy, with the Israeli Army present outside every Palestinian town, checking the permit of every Palestinian who set foot outside. ‘And he’s one of their “moderates”,’ I had to remind myself. But at least there is the chance that in four years’ time, when the inability of the present government to deliver security is clear to a majority of Israelis, a new Labour Administration may be voted back in power.
As for Arafat being undemocratic, is it not really too much to expect the Palestinians to develop modern institutions overnight when they have never been allowed by various occupying powers to rule themselves? I agree with Said that there is not a single truly democratic state in the whole world of Islam, but the Palestinians would be dependent on Israel and the West for a long time and they might, just might, prove the exception.
Edward Said’s extraordinary response to my questions is revealing and, lamentably, quite troubling (Letters, 17 October). Setting aside the castigation and invective, what does he say? Now substituting a language of explanation for his earlier (and, I trust, continuing) outrage about the suicide bus bombings, he repeats what he told Time before the Israeli election: better Netanyahu and the Likud than Peres and Labour; better the architects of permanent occupation than the negotiators of withdrawal. I guess Said is entitled to this peculiar politics. By comparison, Arafat, the man he calls ‘Papa Doc’, is a rational actor.
Professor Said’s letter also contains an impressively composed recitation of hideous actions, as if a chronicle of horror justifies any specific political stance. Were I to stipulate all he asserts in his jaundiced account of Israeli behaviour, forgo any reminder that Palestinian leaders cast aside many opportunities at co-existence before and after the UN partition plan of 1947, or suppress my (and his) recollection of the Mufti’s wartime support for Hitler, the massacre of children at Maalot, the Olympic slaughter at Munich, the once regular routine of hijacking, bombing and dumping of innocents into the sea, or the recent recruitment and anointment of child-martyrs, Said’s dead-end politics would still be irresponsible.
Vol. 18 No. 22 · 14 November 1996
Messrs Teimourian and Katznelson persist in their illusions (Letters, 31 October). Connie Bruck’s recent New Yorker article about the negotiations affirms what I have been saying and, unlike my critics, seeing. For one thing, she says that it was Peres who forced Arafat to make most of the nasty concessions as part of a scheme, according to Peres, to remake Arafat into his partner. According to his aides, Arafat never read the agreement, nor, unlike the Israelis, did he ever have a real negotiating team. The Palestinians did not understand what was being done to them and their territories. The Israelis deliberately cheated them about how much West Bank land they would be giving up (only 3 per cent as it turned out). For a detailed account of the corruptions and practices of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat see Ehud Ya’ ari’s ‘What a State’ in the 20 September issue of Maariv.
‘Said is irresponsible,’ says Katznelson, who cites a lot of bad things done by Palestinians. Why is it irresponsible for Palestinians to demand and, yes, fight for independence and equality? And why is he simply unable to respond to the point I raised, that Palestinians still bear the memories and scars of what Zionism did to them, from the destruction of their society, to their dispossession, occupation and oppression for fifty years? Dastardly as the crimes he mentions are, they must be seen in the context of Zionist policies directed against an entire people, the denial of that people’s history, and the refusal of any proper compensation. The moral idiocy of Katznelson’s position is staggering, but – given his peculiar ideological deformations – not unexpected.
I responded to a letter by him (Letters, 3 October) in which he took me to task for ‘elisions’ in a sober first-person account of what it was like to return to my country of origin and place of birth, seized and occupied by a movement about which Katznelson has absolutely nothing critical to say. I raised a series of questions about the past as these directly relate to the present, questions which Katznelson again obdurately refuses even to acknowledge, much less answer. Instead he speaks about my castigation and invective. There was none of either: I spoke only about his silence, which it is now perfectly obvious he refuses to break. Remember also that he was accusing Palestinian intellectuals of ‘muzzling’ their critical intelligence. And yet, from the ‘precincts of Morning-side Heights’ – his phrase – he is unable to say one word about what Zionism has done and continues to do to the Palestinians. I said about Peres that both in engineering the Oslo Accords and in implementing (or not implementing) some of their clauses, he made a mockery of peace, giving the Palestinians little except immediate authority over municipal affairs, without any mention of sovereignty at the end of the process. Peres spent four times more money expropriating land for, and adding to, settlements than Shamir’s Government, to say nothing of closures that have cost the Palestinians literally billions of dollars, plus the invasion of Lebanon in April, plus the assassination of Yahya Ayash, plus the continuing curfew against the Palestinian inhabitants of Hebron, who were victims of a settler’s massacre in the mosque in February 1994. Is it wrong to assume that Katznelson prefers to snipe against me than to face the truth, which is that, appalling as Netanyahu is, Peres was no better, only packaged differently?
Vol. 18 No. 23 · 28 November 1996
The list of PEN signatories who address themselves to Yasser Arafat in the matter of Edward Said’s books being banned (Letters, 17 October) is really remarkable: Derrida, Sontag, Ginsberg, Grass, Vidal etc are citizens of Western liberal democracies whose postwar operations in the Middle East include weapons sales, cultivation of client regimes after destabilising others, and the support of governments who believe that ‘the Islamic wave can be defeated in the torture chamber,’ as Hossein Oweidah wrote in a letter to the Independent earlier this month. Adonis, Darwish and Mafouz, on the other hand, belong to peoples who are, and have been, at the receiving end of imperialist pressures which we Westerners, purveyors of a commodity-oriented culture of materialism, are pleased to call ‘democratic liberalism’. In Culture and Imperialism Said explains the relations between coloniser and colonised as follows: the ‘dominant society comes to depend uncritically on natives and their territories perceived as in need of la mission civilisatrice’. How is it that he finds himself the subject of a letter, addressed to the leader of his own people, the intent of which is precisely an example of that mission civilisatrice? Is it because, if the West practised the principles which its citizens are at liberty to preach, the Palestinians might not be suffering their current humiliations?
Vol. 18 No. 24 · 12 December 1996
One aspect of the context of the recent exchanges between our two colleagues, Edward Said and Ira Katznelson, stands out. The Oslo Accords have thus far led to a far more fragmented society for the Palestinians than existed before. The undermining of civil society to which the Israelis have contributed – some no doubt unwittingly but others more deliberately – with the collusion of Arafat, is graphically, eloquently and movingly described in Said’s report of his visit to the area, which Katznelson attacks. ‘Bantustan’ seemed to both of us, when we read it, to be an accurate and appropriate word for some of the features of the situation that Said was describing.
We don’t have a good and workable idea of how to improve the social, political and economic conditions of the Palestinians under the present circumstances. It is true that Said had not suggested anything positive in that particular report, and in a personal account of his visit had not presented analytically the qualms he has about the peace Accords, as he has done elsewhere in considerable detail. But Katznelson does not do any better in his responses. He does ‘castigate’ Said (not so much with ‘invective’ but in a snide and complacent tone) for being no happier with the situation after the peace Accords than before. He says this negativity is unjustified when the results are not yet fixed. But he must surely understand that the idea that the future ‘is not yet fixed’ is going to seem a bit academic to someone who thinks that the Accords that Arafat has signed are actually going to bind his people into fixes that are crippling to their future welfare as well as their dignity, and that therefore it would have been better to have held out for something more. Although we agree that it is a good idea to keep a cool head even under duress, sometimes a cool head calls for frustration and outrage to be expressed in strong terms. We are writing partly to say that we wish our colleague Katznelson had been sensitive to this and not seen it as mere ‘castigation and invective’ on Said’s part.
Vol. 19 No. 1 · 2 January 1997
I hope that you will permit me to rebut the claims of Ira Katznelson in his dispute with Edward Said about what can, or cannot, be called ‘moderate’ in Zionism (Letters, 31 October 1996). In the first place, Zionism, exactly like its mirror image, anti-semitism, is a discriminatory movement. It is not necessary to speak of the Occupied Territories in order to establish this irrefutable fact. In Israel itself, 92 per cent of the so-called ‘national land’ can be used (for living, business etc) only by the Jews. A major Zionist organisation, the Jewish National Fund, is trying to enlarge ‘national land’ and close it to Palestinians. Try to imagine that Jews would be denied the use of 92 per cent of Britain and a ‘Christian Fund’ would buy Jewish shops to rent them exclusively to Christians, and you will see some of the routine discrimination practised by the ‘Jewish state’. Thus, in respect of both Zionism and anti-semitism the real question is which part of an evil movement is less evil than the other parts. If we ignore religious Zionists, who are by far the worst, it can be shown that Labour or ‘left’ Zionists have been and are much worse than right-wing Zionists, in spite of the fact that the latter bluster more than the former. Let me illustrate this fact with two basic examples.
The explicit wish to expel all or most Palestinians from the ‘Land of Israel’, known as ‘transfer’, is associated especially with Labour Zionism. Most of the major leaders of this tendency expressed themselves in favour of expelling as many Palestinians as possible, and tried to realise this wish in times of both war and peace. It may interest British readers that in 1944 the British Labour Party passed a resolution in favour of ‘transferring’ Palestinians out of Palestine and this recommendation has never been rescinded. Labour took this step on the recommendation of Mr Katznelson’s friends. Just as I am conscious, as a Jew, of the difference between the anti-semites who ‘only’ want to discriminate against the Jews, and those who want to expel them, so I distinguish between Likud Zionists, who ‘only’ oppress and discriminate against, and Labour Zionists, who wish to establish apartheid, which will lead to expulsion.
Second, let us look at the structure of the two major secular Zionist parties, Labour and Likud. Likud, and its parent party, Herut, has, since 1949, accepted into its membership any Israeli citizen. For many years Labour only accepted Jews as members and relegated Palestinians to vassal parties which it dominated from the outside. Even now, it does not accept Palestinians as members in its branches. A Palestinian living in, say, Haifa cannot belong to the local Labour Party branch, but is relegated to ‘an Arab district’ to which all Arabs, wherever they reside, belong. Imagine the Jews being forbidden to belong to local branches of a British party and, instead, no matter where they live, relegated to ‘a Jewish district’ for Jews only, and you will grasp the ‘moderation’ recommended by Labour Zionists. Let me add that the kibbutz movement, of which they are so proud, is only for Jews. Non-Jews must convert to Judaism to become kibbutz members.
With all Netanyahu’s faults, Labour Zionism, as exemplified by Rabin and Peres and recommended by Mr Katznelson, is much worse. There will be no progress on anything if this basic fact is not understood.
Vol. 19 No. 2 · 23 January 1997
The volley of letters by Said, Laor, Levi and Bilgrami, and Shahak, responding to four questions I posed, respectfully I had hoped, to Edward Said, curiously holds me responsible for the uncritical qualities of American Zionism (nowhere did I embrace all its positions or enthusiasms), the chequered history of British and Israeli Labour Party views about Palestinians since the Forties (Shahak’s version is partial and deeply distorted), for failing to preface my reaction to Said’s painful account of Palestinian suffering with an inventory of harms Israel has generated (when is such required as the entry ticket into a political conversation?), even with the inadequate preparation of the Palestine Authority’s negotiating team. For my politics – in support of a negotiated two-state solution (a position I have held for a quarter-century), a preference for Peres and Labour over Netanyahu and Likud, and a disapprobation of terror even by the disinherited – I have been pilloried by Said for ‘moral idiocy’.
His account of current conditions on the West Bank, I repeat, was gruelling to read. I did not argue with its reportage, only its author’s pathless politics. As Levi and Bilgrami note in the most serious of the letters, Said’s report ‘had not suggested anything positive’. They wish I had been more specific as well. They are right to want to shift the dialogue to issues of politics, negotiation and practice; but they are wrong to accept Said’s account of Oslo I and II as definitive. They repeat his indictment that these agreements validate a policy of Bantustans. But, like Said, they leave out the fact that the Accords specify four stages of Israeli withdrawal before the final status talks commence and as they proceed, not just the initial step directing an end to Israeli control of the main population centres. I think it critical that all these military removals be made to happen and that the anticipated negotiations about conclusive borders and arrangements proceed. The Oslo agreements are neither immaculate nor sufficiently exact. If a better option exists for either side, however, we have yet to hear it.
Vol. 19 No. 3 · 6 February 1997
Jacob Mendlovic accuses me of being ‘highly selective’ with my facts (Letters, 2 January), but that is only because all his factual statements are misleading or simply wrong. For example, he talks about the Palestinians’ ‘endless slaughter of Israeli civilians’. Any slaughter of Israeli civilians is deeply deplorable, but has Mendlovic already forgotten the Israeli slaughter of Arab civilians at Qana last April? Is he really unaware that the number of innocent Arab civilians killed by Israelis vastly exceeds the number of innocent Israeli civilians killed by Arabs? When he points to the Jordanian destruction of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem and the Jordanian refusal of all access by Jews to their holy places, is he not being more than a little selective in failing to mention the 450 Palestinian villages wiped off the map by Israel? As to the Jordanian denial of access, has he forgotten that Israel expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and country in 1948 and refused to allow them to return? Which does he think the greater crime: the Jordanian refusal of jewish access to Jerusalem for worship, or the Israeli expulsion of 750,000 Arabs?
I have been wondering whether Mr Mendlovic is a man of infinite jest or just one who lacks humour and knowledge, because of his statement that the Israelis ‘have acted with Gandhian restraint in the face of relentless violence by Arabs since 1967’. Leaving aside the false claim that mere has been relentless Arab violence, one sees of course what he means. After 1967, Israel heavily bombed the Egyptian canal towns as a tribute to Gandhi; and Gandhi’s most celebrated apostle, Mr ‘Mahatma’ Begin, launched a non-violent invasion of Lebanon which just happened to kill 20,000 Arabs, most of them civilians. General Sharon’s devotion to pacifism at Qibya, Gaza, Sabra, Chatila and elsewhere is too notorious to require further praise. During the intifada, Yitzhak Rabin issued a Gandhian commandment to Israeli soldiers ordering them to break the bones of Palestinians, who would thereby gain much spiritual benefit. In the same spirit of peace and goodwill, Israeli troops were prepared to endanger their own lives by using live ammunition against stone-throwing Palestinian children, killing hundreds of them. The Israeli Government similarly evoked the Mahatma by its frequent recourse to collective punishments and by legalising torture, as well as by a little light kidnapping from time to time and the occasional assassination. And last year, Mr Peres in his inimitably peaceable way drove hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from their homes, his benevolence enabling them to see a different part of their country. Gandhi would have been proud of his Israeli disciples.
House of Lords
Vol. 19 No. 7 · 3 April 1997
In his reply to my letter (Letters, 6 February), Ian Gilmour mocks my assertion that Israel has acted with Gandhian restraint in the face of unending Arab violence. He points to the Israeli shelling of Qana in southern Lebanon last April, killing a hundred refugees, which Israel insisted was a terrible accident. A tragedy during the Algerian War of 1954-62 bears striking parallels to Qana. In 1958, the French bombarded Sakiet-Sidi-Youssef, a Tunisian village near the Algerian border, also killing a hundred civilians. Like Qana, it evoked world outrage. Like Peres, Félix Gaillard deplored the loss of lives but said his army did not deliberately target civilians, only guerrillas. In 1961, in resisting the Tunisian blockade of the naval base of Bizerte, France slaughtered 1300 Tunisians, mostly civilians.
Not one Palestinian in Israel or the territories was harmed as a result of the recent wave of Palestinian bombings which killed scores of Israeli civilians, despite the explosive rage. In 1955, in revenge for the murder of 71 Europeans at Philippeville, the French Army and vigilantes slaughtered from 1300 to 12,000 Algerians, many of them women and children. This is how France fought to hold onto Algeria. Yet, unlike tiny Israel confronting so many enemies on her borders and elsewhere vowing to eradicate her, France was and is a large and non-beleaguered country.
Compare the behaviour of Israelis to that of the Arabs, provoked by no terrorism whatever from the Jews living then in Arab countries, hundreds of miles from the conflict in Israel. Their barbarisms included the pogroms in Baghdad in 1941 and in Libya in 1945, which killed hundreds of Jews, and the deadly riots against them during and after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Gilmour points to the violence of the Intifada; one thousand Palestinians, unarmed and lightly armed, were killed by Israeli soldiers. But if two hundred Israelis were also killed, doesn’t the ratio of casualties, 5:1, indicate the restraint of the Israeli Army, one of the most powerful in the world?