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Rahmane Idrissa


Ahmed is a Palestinian living in the Bethlehem area. He is not yet thirty, but his studies were long ago interrupted by the closure of his university in the occupied territories and nowadays he earns part of his living by escorting foreign visitors around the West Bank. His itinerary is selective, leading from one dark scene of bereavement or injury to another. We meet in Bethlehem on a wet December morning. The shopkeepers are already closing up – the half-day is a regular feature of the intifada, a mass protest, now over a year old, against the Israeli occupation, itself over twenty years old.

We drive to a freezing office in the city where a large lady in her forties is seated at a desk beside a one-bar fire. Her card reads ‘Artificial Limbs Manufacture, Cinema Street’. ‘What do you think of our intifada?’ she asks with evident pride. ‘You saw Bethlehem at Christmas? How was it?’ ‘Empty,’ I say, and she looks me up and down with a smile of approbation. After a time she leads me into another cold room – a modest prosthetics workshop containing several upright legs and a grey metal rack full of plastic arms and hands. Her workload has increased dramatically since the intifada began, she claims, lifting a thin, short prosthetic hand and forearm from the rack. It is for a young boy who was injured before Christmas. She alleges that the Israelis ordered him to take down a Palestinian flag from a high-voltage wire near Nablus. They made him stand on a jeep and had him try to remove the flag with a metal pole. The force of the current blew off his hand and forearm. Holding the prosthesis in her own right hand, she tugs at a string on its underside with her left; the lifeless fingers enact a brief, sclerotic clench, moving less than half an inch in all. She replaces it carefully on the rack. At the end of our meeting I ask her to write her name on a piece of paper. She writes: ‘Alice Saad’. ‘You know,’ she says with a brusque laugh and a shrug of the shoulders, ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

Bethlehem is quiet. A funeral procession has just gone by and there are several soldiers in the square near the post office. The rain sweeps across the arcades and the metal shutters on the shop fronts rattle in the bitter wind. Two nights ago, on Christmas Eve, I went through the security systems into the Church of the Nativity with a handful of other tourists – or ‘pilgrims’, as they’re known. The intifada kept all the local residents indoors, the shops were shut and the rain was pouring down. When I emerged from the stifling Grotto of the Nativity into the dank, dripping Basilica of Justinian, I had the impression of entering an underground cavern. The worse the weather in Bethlehem, the more the history of Christianity resembles a long and disastrous pot-holing expedition, starting with the immaculate conception and culminating in the disappearance, no less immaculate, of the Archbishop’s Special Envoy in Lebanon. Outside, now, there are still a few tardy foreign visitors making their way through runnels of rainwater on the hillside like jaded salmon struggling back up the leaps to breed. The wind angles the rain almost horizontal to their bodies.

Beit Sahour is a smaller town on the edge of Bethlehem. Angles are important here too, as Michael Awwad, a well-to-do Palestinian shopkeeper, explains with a diagram drawn on the counter of his hardware shop. In July 1988, he begins, Edmon Ghanem, a 17-year-old Palestinian, was walking by a house in Beit Sahour when a large stone fell from the balcony and struck him dead. Apparently, there were soldiers on the balcony at the time. The Israelis claim it was an accident, but in Awwad’s diagram, the position of Edmon Ghanem at the time of his death is some twenty degrees off the vertical from the balcony to the ground, suggesting that the stone did not drop, but was thrown. This, says Michael, is one of two deaths in the town since 9 December 1987, Day One of the intifada. Beit Sahour has got off lightly, although Awwad estimates that one in six inhabitants has been detained in the course of the year. Surrounded by trowels and tins of paint, he holds forth on the virtues of Arafat’s two-state position, while various men seated in the shop chorus their approval. The cost of the intifada is gruelling, he says. He and other shopkeepers are losing money hand over fist, but they will hold on, he avers, for as long as it takes. Ahmed’s face, spliced by a large dark moustache, begins to shine when he is restless, and his eyes shine too. Everything about Ahmed is shining now, and very shortly we are on our way to what he calls ‘the office’.

It is yet another freezing room with another electric fire clanking unconvincingly. There are also two desks, a sofa, a fax machine and a telephone. About five young people are laughing and talking in the room. One of them is Edmon Ghanem’s cousin. Menal is 22; she has a head of prodigal black hair and superbly inquiring, dark eyes. She was studying chemistry until the university was shut down. At the mention of Edmon, she says simply that he died in the intifada, indicating with a troubled nod that there is nothing she wishes to add. But she will talk about other relatives in detention. Of a visit to one of them, she remembers largely that his hair was so greasy – detainees are allowed one bath every thirty days – that she thought he had just emerged from the shower. She tells the story with a look of fastidious dismay. ‘What is going to happen here?’ I ask. ‘We must have our freedom, and our state,’ she says. ‘Everyone agrees except Abu Moussa and President Assad.’ She laughs. But why two states? ‘If it is one state in the whole of Palestine,’ she replies, ‘the Israelis have nowhere to go. They must have their state too.’ On the way out, she asks the English for a person who has died in battle. ‘It is a word like militaire ... ’ She tries some other words; none of them is recognisably English. ‘Okay,’ she says, ‘I will ask my father. His English is better than mine.’ Menal’s English is excellent.

In the afternoon the sky over Jerusalem goes dark grey. The door of Yehoshafat Harkabi’s apartment opens onto a deluge of paper which has burst the banks of his study and begun to form standing pools in the living-room. His wife is in a brown dressing-gown; she is seated on a high stool in the kitchen – a kind of Mount Ararat, from which she will descend when the current flood has been diverted to the publisher. Harkabi has already published 17 books and is now assembling a manual on strategy for the edification of the military academy. Once the director of Israeli Military Intelligence, he now regards himself as a ‘Machiavellian dove’. He makes his living as a writer and lecturer, pursuing the necessity of peace in the face of what he construes as a flaw in the basis of Israeli thinking about the Palestinians.

‘I don’t consider Israel’s problems to be political so much as metapolitical,’ he says, hinting at a grand illusion in which the tolerable options available to his country are foreclosed by an ideal of peace and security that lacks political realism. As he sees it, there are a number of axiomatic truths about the conflict in Israel and Palestine which Israelis have failed to accept: that it is easier to survive within bad borders – if a withdrawal to the 1967 borders is really so bad – than in a territory with a rebellious population whose growth-rate poses ominous demographic problems for the Israelis; that Palestinians will never resign themselves to the idea that ‘all they deserve is autonomy under Israel’s aegis, whereas the Jews deserve a state’; and finally, that ‘Arab moderation cannot maintain itself without moderation on our side, but Arab extremism can persist as it is.’ The fallacies in Israel’s thinking are drawn into sharp relief by Arafat’s moves at the PNC and the United Nations. Harkabi is quick on the case. His remarks give the impression that the intifada offers both protagonists a make-or-break opportunity for a settlement. The inference is that failing to rise to the occasion will leave Israel with a chronic ailment, like someone who has failed to complete a course of antibiotics. He sends me away with a paraphrase of his own writings, a habit for which he has a justifiable weakness: ‘At most what we can achieve is not what we desire,’ he remarks, ‘but what is tolerable.’

It is a bright morning and Ahmed’s little Fiat bounces through the checkpoint on the way to Nablus; at subsequent checkpoints inside the city, the soldiers have their hands full and Ahmed remarks that ‘we are lucky today.’ The mood in the city by mid-morning is bad; three people have already been wounded in Balata camp, a sprawling settlement at the foot of the city. We are told that one man has been hit in the eye and his condition is thought to be serious. Up in the city there are Israeli snipers posted on several of the buildings; jeeps buzz around the centre.

The Palestinian hospital is busy. An American Jewish group which favours recognition of the Palestinian state is hovering in a ward where several young men are being treated for bullet wounds. (The Palestinians must be angels, runs the standard intifada joke, or at least have wings: every time the Israelis fire in the air, dozens of wounded fall to the ground.) We are received by a senior administrator whose English is poor. He is in a state of agitation and clearly eager to communicate the violations which have occurred in the hospital during the year. Dozens of injured, he says, have been removed for detention or questioning before they are fit for discharge. Two nurses (presumably male) have sustained fractures as a result of confrontation on the wards with Israeli soldiers.

In September, he says, after several days of curfew in Nablus, a man of 29 succumbed to the pressing and dangerous temptation to leave his house in search of food. He was shot through the arm. At the hospital, the Army demanded to see him. They were told he was undergoing surgery. They waited for a time but eventually entered the theatre, where the soldier who had shot him gave a positive identification; the patient was subsequently removed for questioning. The official finishes his story with a remark about the problem of maintaining a sterile environment for surgery. He alleges that soldiers have entered the theatre some fifteen times over the course of the year. He slumps back in his chair and stares in silence at the top of his desk.

The A. family has lost a son in the intifada. The boy has just died in hospital. Ahmed drives us to a memorial in the old city, which is being held at the community’s peril. We descend a set of steep passageways through a warren of buildings and enter the family’s bare concrete parlour. Some twenty or thirty men are seated in silence, flanked by posters delivered and hung by local representatives from most of the main parties – Fatah, the PFLP, the DFLP and the Communist Party. The boy’s mother is receiving women visitors in another house. His father, a large bearded man with a keffiyeh, summons a young man and whispers in his ear; the young man goes into an adjoining room and returns with a photo of the dead son, framed on four sides by Arabic text. He hands it to the father who in turn hands it to me. ‘You can use live rounds and tear gas, but nothing will stop our intifada of children and stones,’ is the rough translation provided by a middle-aged Palestinian waiter in East Jerusalem several hours later. ‘It is true,’ he adds in a tone indistinguishable from his hushed incantation of the chef’s special, ‘that our children are dying for the intifada.’

As I sit clumsily beside the father, clutching the photograph, a stream of men enters and leaves the parlour. Those who arrive offer brief condolences to the head of the family and take a seat on one of the chairs. Those who leave ascend the steps past the chain of children which winds from the parlour door to the main street and serves as an early warning system that will alert the gathering in the event of an Israeli swoop. I nod a routine greeting to the children as we pass. One of them has darker skin than the others and is wearing an oversize waistcoat. His bright blue eyes respond to my halting stab at protocol with a blank stare from somewhere well beyond adulthood. He cannot be more than twelve.

It is late afternoon and we are hustled out of Balata camp by an equally competent chain of women posted at the corners of the alleyways and waving us from block to block in sequence. Local feeling about the Israeli action earlier in the day is coming to a head; young men are massing in small groups and the soldiers are moving in. On the wider transverse road where the car is parked, there are no soldiers. We get in and Ahmed drives rapidly past a large gathering of Palestinians who seem to be preparing for yet another uneven contest.

The Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish writes of a clock in a city crumbling around it:

The house collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The wall collapsed
The clock
Ticked on

For as long as the intifada lasts, time will seem to favour first one adversary and then the other, both appearing to weigh up their moves less in relation to each other than to the sense of whether or not time is on their side. Ahmed believes it is running with the Palestinians like a wind, but if he is wrong, then what of all the injured and detained, and the hundreds who have been killed? ‘Martyrs’ was the disturbingly familiar word which, despite her fluent English, eluded Menal in the cold office in Bethlehem. For an outsider, it is hard to know whether the value of martyrdom changes if time suddenly deserts the cause and takes up with its opponents. Menal’s commitment to the idea of two states is reassuring. No other option seems likely to spare Palestinians and Israelis the finicky sound of the clock ticking on in the ruined cities.

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London Review of Books,
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Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989

Jeremy Harding’s West Bank Diary (LRB, 2 February) was so good it seems churlish to point out that the poem he quoted is not by Mahmoud Darwish but by another distinguished Palestinian poet, Samih al-Qasim. It’s short enough to quote in full (in Abdullah al-Udhari’s translation):

My city collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
Our neighbourhood collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The street collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The square collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The house collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The wall collapsed
The clock
Ticked on

All of the Arab-Israeli conflict is there.

Roger Hardy
London E5

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London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

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