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 Most of its Christian residents have been replaced by Muslims; it has considerably increased in size and is now full of office buildings, shops, restaurants, schools, institutes and taxis, all catering to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.

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