This article by Robert Fisk was commissioned by the ‘New Yorker’, who subsequently declined to publish it on the grounds that it was too ‘polemical’
Selma Tawil brought the fifty-year-old keys into the room, sat down in her corner armchair and let them spill out of her hands onto the floor: heavy store-room keys, rusting cupboard keys, keys shaped like backbones for office safes, car keys for an old British-made Hillman, and one larger steel key with a three-and-a-half inch shaft, gun-metal grey with an elegant knot at one end and a broad, worn blade. Aunty Selma picked this key up in a hand spotted with age. She is 90 now and her facial skin hangs in folds, but her grey hair is pinned back in a neat bun and though her hearing is impaired, her memory is as sharp as it was the day she left Palestine. The key in her hand was the front-door key of her home in Haifa.
She looked at it for a long time in silence as the roar of the Beirut traffic seeped into the little apartment, watched by Samir and Fayez, two of the five nephews who preceded her into Lebanese exile. They have all the family documents to prove that the three-storey house on the corner of Mukhaless and Shabatai Levy streets was theirs, along with the British mandate deeds showing that Jad Tawil – Selma’s brother, Samir and Fayez’s father – bought the house from another Palestinian Arab in 1938. On the top of the deeds is the British coat of arms, a lion and a unicorn on hind legs on either side of a crown, standing on the words Dieu et Man Droit. The same animals rampant are embossed on the front of Aunty Selma’s British mandate passport – No 256959 with the word ‘Palestine’ in gold on the top, issued 12 November 1947 – and inside is a photograph of Selma Tawil just before she left her home for ever, a handsome woman of 34 with large sensitive eyes and thick black hair that falls over her earrings.
An architect’s design of the house shows that Jad Tawil had added the third storey for his brother George in 1947 because George was planning to marry. Aunty Selma lived on the second floor with Jad and his wife Nada and their five boys, including Samir and Fayez. Aunty Esma lived on the ground floor with her husband Andreas. The Tawils were Greek Orthodox Arabs, grain merchants, people of property, Freemasons who knew the local British magistrates and the Haifa Assistant District Commissioner, who had sent their children to the expensive National Evangelical School in Beirut to avoid the growing anarchy in Palestine.
Samir and Fayez have heard the story of the family’s tragedy before, but they let Aunty Selma repeat it to them in the high, unnerving monotone of the deaf as she weighs the key in her right hand. It is a kind of ritual, a purging of the past, the key representing the last physical hope of ever returning to the land that was Palestine and is now Israel. ‘Your Uncle George locked the front door,’ she said. ‘You see, we thought we would only be leaving for fourteen or fifteen days, until the fighting died down. So we took a few clothes with us and left everything else behind. The Jewish forces had surrounded our part of Haifa but there was a ceasefire and we thought it was the last chance to escape the war and reach the Lebanese border at Naqqoura. We thought we could come back when it was over. Your father Jad drove us away in the Hillman and I remember looking back at the house. We didn’t realise then that Haifa had already surrendered to the Jewish forces. We could have stayed.’ Aunty Selma put her hands to her face. Palestinians call this period their ‘catastrophe’. Israeli as well as Palestinian historians now accept that up to 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in what was to become Israel, fearful of being massacred; these refugees and their descendants now number at least three million, 350,000 of whom live in Lebanon, mostly in squalid camps, a few – like Aunty Selma and her nephews – in modest comfort. Those Palestinians who stayed behind were subjected to years of restrictions but are now citizens of Israel. Aunty Selma had cousins who stayed; one became a member of the Israeli Knesset. It makes the tragedy of her own exile all the more painful. ‘We were born in Palestine. We lived there and we should have stayed there. Lebanon is not our land. This is not our home.’
Aunty Selma and her family did not involve themselves in politics – neither in pre-Israel Palestine nor in exile. Their Christian religion separated them from the Palestinian Muslim majority and Samir says his parents were neutral in the Jewish-Arab war. The conflict between the Arab nations who refused to accept the partition of Palestine and the nascent Israeli Army was not their battle. But they were punished for running away because the Israelis would never allow those who fled to return.
So what did Aunty Selma feel when she watched Yassir Arafat shake hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn over a year ago? Her eyebrows arched suddenly. ‘I thought: “Oh God, what a world.” I thought: “Halas, it’s finished, it’s over. Now I will never be able to go back.” What it needs is for the British to make a decision to let us return and we can all go home.’ There is an embarrassed silence in the room at this astonishing statement. Aunty Selma’s memory is so acute that time has stood still for her. Samir leans forward. ‘You have to understand,’ he says, ‘that Aunty Selma still thinks the British are a superpower.’
There are few others in the Middle East who doubt the identity of the superpower which now drives the ‘peace process’, nor the unique nature of its relationship with Israel. But at least Selma Tawil understood the implications of the Declaration of Principles which the PLO signed on 13 September 1993 to the applause of President Clinton and almost the entire Western world. Until then, Yassir Arafat had promised the Tawils and the other Palestinian refugees that they would somehow ‘return’. However unrealistic this pledge may have appeared through the long decades spent in the refugee camps, it remained the focus of their lives and the purpose of their suffering. Driven by this pledge, thousands of young fighters were to die in Jordan in 1970 and in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. The very existence of the PLO was an assurance to these Palestinians that they were not forgotten, that they would somehow be compensated for their tragedy. In all the fetid camps across Lebanon, the refugees – and the growing population of children whom they bore in exile – were encouraged to plan for this ‘return’. Palestinians from Um al-Faraj in northern Galilee were thus settled together in the same street in the Rashidiyeh camp; refugees from Haifa lived in the same alleyways in the Chatila camp.
All this may seem irrelevant today; Western journalists – especially American reporters – now prefer to ignore this vast mass of dispossessed people in favour of the ‘miracle of peace’ which, to our acclaim, Arafat, Rabin, Shimon Peres and now King Hussein are supposedly bringing about. What hope, anyway, did these Palestinians ever have of recovering homes they left almost half a century ago? Israeli historians like Benny Morris, Israeli authors like David Grossman and Amos Oz, have written eloquently of their catastrophe. But in 1950, the Israeli government passed the Absentee Property Law which still forbids Selma Tawil and the other 750,000 Palestinians from ever returning – if they left their homes in what is now Israel before 1 September 1948. Under this law, an ‘absentee’ includes anyone who was ‘a legal owner of any property situated in the area of Israel’ who ‘left his ordinary place of residence in Palestine for a place outside Palestine before 1 September 1948’ and who found himself in countries which were then at war with Israel. The law applies even if the refugees were in no way involved in the conflict. Selma Tawil left Haifa in July 1948, and sought refuge in Lebanon. Lebanon was at war with Israel. So Selma Tawil, her nephews and brothers were effectively dispossessed of their home.
Despite this, Palestinian refugees clung to a largely forgotten UN General Assembly resolution of 1948, No 194, which demanded their ‘return’. Because it was not a Security Council resolution, Israel refused to regard 194 as binding, but it was on this UN demand that the Palestinians based the legitimacy of their struggle to go back to Haifa and Jaffa, to the Galilee and Acre and all the other cities and villages in which they or their parents once lived. Arafat’s Declaration of Principles, however, has abandoned even this legitimacy. Instead, the Palestinians who lost their homes are dismissed in a single word, buried deep in Article Five of the agreement, which states that ‘permanent status negotiations’ – to begin ‘as soon as possible’ – will cover ‘remaining issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbours, and other items of common interest’. Squeezed between Jerusalem and Jewish settlements, the ‘refugees’ are a ‘remaining issue’.
Living in the Middle East but listening to those who support the ‘peace process’, it sometimes seems to me as if America and its allies in the region – Administration spokesmen in Washington, pro-Israeli columnists and television reporters, CNN above all – are participating in a unique form self-delusion. For the ‘peace process’ is being depicted as something mystical, almost holy, a shaft of light in a darkening world that will unite Muslim, Jew and Christian, a transfiguration in which the Arabs suddenly decided through some form of divine intervention that they preferred peace to war.
If this were true, it would certainly provide an alternative to the humiliation of Somalia, the wickedness of Rwanda and the shame which the West must share for Bosnia. But the Arabs were not blessed with some new form of spiritual generosity towards their old enemies. What happened was far more prosaic: the Soviet Union self-destructed and left them helpless. The superpower which survived was the one which supported Israel and which would be in a position to decide the kind of peace that might be made in the Middle East, a peace which – because of its special relationship with one country in the region – was bound to be an American-Israeli peace.
The weakest Arab neighbours in the region, those most in need of foreign dependency, were therefore inevitably going to be the first to make ‘peace’, their efforts encouraged by Egypt, the one Arab country to have concluded a treaty with Israel and whose economic collapse is only prevented by massive US subventions. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait provided the first two ‘peace partners’ for the Israelis – the two Arab leaders who supported Iraq in its war with the Allies. It comes as a shock now to re-read what we wrote only four years ago, in the aftermath of Iraq’s defeat. Yassir Arafat had announced that he and Saddam would pray together in Jerusalem after Iraq had defeated Israel; and we – journalists and analysts and all the ‘diplomatic sources’ we enjoy quoting – revelled in Arafat’s subsequent humiliation. Could the PLO survive? Could King Hussein, snubbed by Washington, hold his nation together after he had infuriated the Gulf Arabs as well as the West? What future for the Hashemites now?
Economically and, according to Israel, morally bankrupt as well, the PLO was in danger of losing its Palestinian support. The loss of financial contributions from the Gulf and the expulsion of most of Kuwait’s Palestinian population meant that thousands of PLO officials throughout the Middle East were no longer paid. King Hussein found himself with huge debts and a UN sanctions operation off Aqaba that was throttling Jordan almost as much as it was damaging its ostensible target, Iraq. To survive, both Arafat and the King had to lay down their arms. And so it came about – without, needless to say, much comment on the irony by reporters – that the only two prominent Arab leaders to have embraced Saddam during his confrontation with the Allies and his war against Israel became the first two Arab leaders after the conflict to shake hands with Yitzhak Rabin as they made ‘peace’ with Israel. In return; the PLO was given some control over Gaza and Jericho and promised unspecified – but hitherto largely unpaid – millions of dollars in aid. Jordan’s debt burden was forgiven and massive new construction, trade and tourist projects were promised. ‘Peace’ was breaking out in the Middle East.
Months of secret negotiations between Israelis and the PLO in Oslo, years of secret meetings between King Hussein and the Israeli leadership brought about some extraordinary – some might say ludicrous – transformations. In just 24 hours, Arafat was converted in the West from super-terrorist to super-statesman, his new wife obsequiously interviewed on CNN on the day of Arafat’s guest appearance on the White House lawn. The man who controlled what Menachim Begin once called ‘the evil weed of terrorism’, who – under Israeli siege in Beirut in August, 1982 – had been compared by Begin to Hitler in his Berlin bunker, was now a fit ‘peace’ partner for Israel. All Arafat’s sins, his contempt for the Lebanese during their civil war, his endless internecine feuds, his execution gangs, his extortion and betrayals, were simply ignored.
Given the Islamic resurgence throughout the region – in Gaza and the West Bank, in Jordan and Egypt and Algeria – it was not difficult to see why. Just as the bloodshed in Bosnia and Nagorny Karabakh and Georgia and Chechenya brought about some nostalgia in the West for the old Soviet Union, so in the Middle East old-style dictatorships and kingdoms have come back into favour. The PLO was preferable to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Hashemite monarchy a worthy bulwark against fundamentalism. Even Hafez el-Assad, whose artillerymen were shooting at US planes over Lebanon in 1983 while he threatened Washington with a ‘new Vietnam’ in Beirut, seemed a likely candidate for forgiveness – always providing he too would make peace with Israel.
The United States could also find some continuity in the events that were taking place in the Middle East. US policy towards the region, always heavily skewed towards Israel, could now be explained even more simply. America was for peace. It was against the enemies of peace; which meant it was at war with terrorism. And President Clinton’s visit to the region in October provided several indications of what this continuity meant. In his speech to the Jordanian Parliament on 26 October, he turned to the diminutive monarch beside him and recalled how Hussein – as a young king on a vulnerable throne – had arrived in Washington in 1960 to meet President Eisenhower. Hussein, according to Clinton, had appealed to Eisenhower in these words: ‘We need more than anything else to know that we do not stand alone.’ Now, Clinton went on, America could once more assure the King that he did not stand alone in the face of ‘those who preach hate and terror’. It was like a rerun of the Eisenhower doctrine which had sent US Marines to Lebanon to protect it from ‘Communism’ in 1958. And everyone in the Jordanian Parliament, purged of some of its former Islamic members by the King’s new electoral laws, understood what this meant. If Eisenhower could protect Jordan from Godless Communism, Clinton could protect it from Islamic ‘terrorism’. President Clinton established a clean transition from the Eisenhower doctrine to the doctrine that may well lie behind the ‘peace process’.
There was a strange echo of this in the hostile questions which faced President Assad of Syria after President Clinton arrived in Damascus on the following day, 27 October. Assad was visibly shaken when suddenly asked by an American journalist travelling with the US President if he had been or still was ‘a sponsor of state terrorism’. Forty years ago, America’s enemies were being asked if they had been or were members of the Communist Party. The fact that Assad’s ruthless suppression of the Islamic uprising at the Syrian city of Hama in February 1982 made him the only Arab leader to have militarily crushed fundamentalism – America’s new enemy – was apparently lost on the journalists in Damascus. They concentrated instead on Assad’s support for the Hizballah forces which regularly attack Israel’s occupation troops in southern Lebanon.
Needless to say, Clinton insisted that there was no enmity between the West and Islam. ‘We respect Islam,’ he announced in the Jordanian parliament on 26 October and again in the Israeli Knesset on the evening of the 27th. ‘America refuses to accept that our civilisations must collide,’ he said in Amman. But it is undeniable that most of the forces now ranged against the American-Israeli peace in the Middle East take their inspiration from the Islamic faith and declare Islam to be the primary motivation for their struggle. Islam and ‘terrorism’ – however great the theological distortions of the Islamic movements involved – have therefore become dangerous synonyms for each other, an equation which is being embraced by the United States and its Arab allies and, of course, by Israel. The Israelis have encouraged this identification of Islam with ‘terrorism’ by publicly and repeatedly associating the two words. At his press conference with Clinton on 27 October, for example, Rabin blamed ‘90 per cent of the terror against Israel’ on ‘extreme Islamic terror movements’.
When Clinton spoke in the Knesset of the Israeli victims of violence, he did not need to add the word ‘Islamic’. ‘So long as Jews are murdered ... the plague of anti-semitism lives,’ he said. ‘Without an end to terror, there can be no peace.’ In Damascus that same day, Clinton had talked of ‘terrorist acts’ and ‘murderous acts of terror’. At the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty the previous day, Clinton warned both parties that ‘the forces of terror will try to hold you back.’ He had clearly wanted Assad to use the same word – ‘terrorism’ – in relation to the Tel Aviv bus suicide bombing in which twenty Israelis had been slaughtered the week before his Damascus visit ‘I regret’ Clinton told the Knesset, ‘that President Assad did not take the opportunity to say in public what he said in private – about his deep regret at the Tel Aviv bus bombing.’ During the Clinton visit, therefore, Rabin talked of Islamic ‘terrorism’ while Clinton suggested that it was also antisemitic. So long as Jews are murdered, he said, the plague of anti-semitism lives. He might have added that so long as Israelis continue to occupy Arab land, Palestinians who do not trust the ‘peace process’ are going to go on murdering Israelis; but that would have placed events in then context. And ‘decontextualisation’ is what the ‘peace process’ is now about, aided and abetted by the ever more reverent media. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in front of journalists that King Hussein’s grandfather – murdered outside the al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 1951 – had ‘died for peace’, no one challenged this historically untrue assertion. King Abdullah was shot down by a Palestinian Arab gunman not because he wanted peace with Israel but because he had just annexed the West Bank.
A similar silence has followed American and Israeli and PLO assertions that massive infusions of aid will defeat ‘fundamentalism’. Here again was the metamorphosis from fear of Communism to fear of ‘Islamic terror’. During the Cold War, it was accepted wisdom that throwing millions of dollars at vulnerable nations would save them from Communist expansion. Now precisely the same arguments are being used about the Islamic resurgence. The reasoning behind this policy is simple: if the Arabs are rich, if they eat well and drive new cars through well-maintained streets, if they can be treated in modern hospitals and allowed the luxuries of the West, then Islam will be no more to them than a religion. The logic behind this argument is perverse: Saudi Arabia, among the richest of all Arab countries and an American ally, runs one of the most restrictive Islamic regimes in the entire Middle East.
Besides, the thousands of lslamicist demonstrators in Gaza are not carrying banners demanding welfare benefits, foreign aid or better health care. They are protesting at what they regard as a totally unjust ‘peace process’. Even more frightening, and with a speed that increases as Arafat’s prestige crumbles, they are demanding the end of the State of Israel. Which is why we are being encouraged to identify Islam with ‘terrorism’, and to regard any form of opposition to the peace accords, however reasoned or legitimate, as vindictive and evil. Journalists in the Middle East are daily confronted with these arguments. Accept them and you find yourself boxed in. You either support the ‘peace process’ or you are a friend of ‘terrorism’. Newspapers in both the United States and Britain now use ‘Islamic terror’ as a rubric in their headlines – the words appeared on a Time cover story last year – although editors have never chosen to refer to Orthodox Serb or Catholic Croat ethnic cleansers (or the Branch Davidians) as representatives of ‘Christian terror’.
All journalists reporting events in the Middle East face problems over this kind of nomenclature. Over 19 years as Middle East correspondent, first for the Times then for the Independent. I have been asked by Arabs on hundreds of occasions how often my reports are censored, how much I am ‘allowed’ to write. Even the Tawil family gently asked me how much ‘control’ my paper maintains over my reporting. To all such questions, I have replied truthfully: my editors have never censored my articles – even when they may have profoundly disagreed with my conclusions. In the Arab world, where the press submits to government censorship almost as much as it exercises self-censorship, these might even be natural questions. But they are asked by Arabs who read Western newspapers and watch satellite television and who have already concluded that the evidence of their own eyes is proof of censorship. Why else would the media be so biased in favour of Israel?
Many Western journalists in the Middle East privately agree that the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the occasion for more prejudiced press and television coverage in the West over half a century than almost anywhere else. And now, when the world is being asked to approve a ‘peace process’ which growing numbers of Arabs believe to be both unjust and potentially doomed, the skewed reporting of events can be more than dangerous. The seeds of this problem were sown long ago but nowhere is it more obvious than in our use or non-use of the word ‘terrorist’. Virtually every attack by Palestinians against Israelis has merited this word. And, if use the word we must, then the October Palestinian suicide bombing of the Tel Aviv bus which killed 21 civilians, along with many other recent violent assaults on Israelis, clearly fell into the category of ‘terrorist’ crimes. So did the slaughter of 29 Palestinian worshippers in a Hebron mosque by Baruch Goldstein on 25 February 1992. Yet not a single newspaper described Goldstein as a ‘terrorist’. Indeed, he started the day on CNN International as a ‘Jewish settler’ and ended the day on CNN as an ‘American immigrant’. Goldstein entered the mosque in Israeli Army uniform carrying an Israeli Army service rifle which he used in the bloodbath. But within hours, his Israeli identity disappeared and the United States was brushed by his guilt. How did this happen?
In a brave essay written two days after the Hebron massacre, Amos Oz noted that a spokesman for the religious settlers ‘referred to it only as “a serious event”. Though he did not praise it, he expressed an understanding of it. Even the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Lau, denounced the “bloodshed”, avoiding the word “murder”, perhaps because the victims were not Jews. Among the commentators I counted five or six religious Jews, all of whom denounced the “event”, some even using harsh words, but not one of them saw fit to call murder by its name.’ If Jews could ask themselves why murder could not be called murder, Oz concluded, ‘they might have the power to decide who is a Jew, and who is a terrorist with a skullcap on his head’. But it is not just Israelis who face this question. On 21 November last year, a week after the Hebron mosque was reopened for the first time since the mass murder, Time referred to Goldstein merely as ‘an Israeli zealot’. Zealot – defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as ‘one who is fanatically committed, as to a cause’ – is not a word Time is likely to have used had the murderer been a Palestinian guilty of massacring 29 Jews in a synagogue.
There is a long history of double standards in the reporting of such crimes. When Jewish extremists – or ‘terrorists’ – embarked on a bombing campaign against Palestinian officials more than a decade ago, Western reporters again fought shy of the ‘terrorist’ label. These men were frequently described then as members of ‘the Jewish underground movement’; the word ‘underground’ reminding us of the French underground in World War Two or the Jewish underground movement in Warsaw, in stitutions composed of heroic men and women who risked or gave their lives to fight the Nazis. Even the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the Chatila camp in Beirut in 1982, however, failed to merit the description of ‘terrorism’ once it was clear that the murderers – Christian Lebanese militiamen – had been sent into the camp by the Israelis.
By the same token, we journalists fight shy of criticising the Israeli Army, even when they are clearly responsible – as they were in July 1993, when 120 civilians were killed during a week-long bombardment of southern Lebanon which also drove 300,000 refugees onto the road. The assault was staged in retaliation for the killing by Hizballah members of eight soldiers from the Israeli occupation force in southern Lebanon. Lebanese hospitals were filled with wounded women and children – I saw some of them covered in burns in Sidon – yet not one reporter described this as an act of terror. On 19 October, around seven hours after the Palestinian suicide bomber’s bloodbath in Dizengoff Street, an Israeli tank in southern Lebanon fired approximately ten shells filled with hundreds of ‘fleshettes’ – three-inch long steel arrows – around the town of Nabatea, killing seven civilians, two of them young girls I found many of the fleshettes buried deep in concrete walls. Neighbours concluded that one of the Israeli tank crewmen had taken his revenge for the Tel Aviv bus bombing. Yitzhak Rabin said later the shelling had been an ‘error’ but offered no explanation for this terrible deed. The episode went virtually unreported in the United States; not a single Western television crew visited the scene.
When journalists had so lost their critical faculties that the definition of a murderer depended on his nationality or religion, there was little chance that the ‘peace process’ would be subject to the kind of scrutiny that it deserved. CNN’s boss Ted Turner gave his own blessing to the agreement at a satellite TV conference in Hong Kong earlier this year. The fact that ‘they’re trying for peace in the Middle East’ as well as achieving it in most of Central America, he said, meant that ‘there are things to be excited and encouraged about.’ CNN’s journalistic approach to the Middle East peace has been almost uniformly uncritical, opposition to the agreement, or to the Israelis themselves, being seen as a rejection of ‘peace’.
I first noticed this in spring 1993, when a Palestinian team was still negotiating in Washington while PLO officials were forging their own secret agreement in Oslo. I had been filming with a British TV crew in Gaza City for a three-part series called ‘From Beirut to Bosnia’ which attempted to explain why, despite the ‘peace process’, so many Muslims distrusted the West. The series was later shown on Channel 4. In Gaza City, quite by chance, we stumbled on an Israeli manhunt for a Hamas gunman. After shooting the man dead, the Israeli soldiers carried out an act of collective punishment later condemned by Amnesty International. With anti-tank rockets, they destroyed the homes of 17 families in the area where the gunman was discovered. We filmed the distraught occupants – who had originally lost their homes to the Israelis in 1948 and who had now lost them again 45 years later – and the subsequent rioting. We filmed one furious young man hurling stones over a burning barricade at an Israeli military patrol.
That night, CNN reported the return from Washington of the Palestinian negotiating team and showed a videotape clip of a young Gaza man throwing stones at an Israeli patrol. It was the same youth we had filmed – from a different angle – but the script by CNN reporter Bill Delaney described the boy as protesting against the peace process. No reference was made to the fact that his protest was at the deliberate destruction by the Israeli Army of 17 homes. When I took this up the same day with CNN’s Jerusalem bureau chief, he said that the tape had been ‘generic’ and had in any case been taped by an outside agency. However odd the explanation, it might be no cause for concern if it did not represent CNN’s overall response to any political dissent over ‘peace’.
When Clinton flew to Damascus on 27 October, for example, a CNN report referred to Syria’s insistence on total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights as an ‘obstacle to peace’. This is certainly the Israeli point of view. What the report did not point out, of course, was that Israel’s refusal to make a total withdrawal under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution might also be regarded as ‘an obstacle to peace’.
A more striking example of the ‘peace process’ spin came on 14 October after the resignation of a Nobel committee member who objected to the awarding of the Peace Prize to Arafat on the grounds that the PLO leader had been a ‘terrorist’, Rabin and Peres were also to receive Peace Prizes. With a historical perspective that was as preposterous as it was pre-judiced, a CNN report that day looked back on controversies surrounding the award of previous Nobel Prizes. It recalled a brouhaha over Prizes to Kissinger and Le Due Tho before the Vietnam War had ended and then reminded viewers that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel had accepted Nobel Prizes before the Camp David accords were signed. What the report did not say was that Begin, like Arafat, had once been a ‘terrorist’, responsible for the destruction of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, then British military headquarters, and involved in the hanging of two captured British Army sergeants (in retaliation for the British execution of captured Irgun members). Nor did it mention that Begin, after the awarding of the Prize, ordered the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that cost around 17,500 lives, including the hundreds of Palestinians who were murdered at Sabra and Chatila camps. Nor did it mention that Sadat himself had been a ‘terrorist’, helping to assassinate a former Egyptian finance minister in 1946 and, during World War Two, actively working in Cairo for the Nazi intelligence service.
Israel’s supporters abroad have not hesitated to attack journalists who have not endorsed the ‘peace process’ with the enthusiasm that Ted Turner has. When I wrote a series of critical reports for the Independent in September 1993, within days of the disclosure of the secret Oslo agreement – reminding readers of Arafat’s untrustworthiness, of his weakness, of the immense political pressure from an allpowerful Israel and from the most pro-Israeli US administration in a generation – readers not only accused me of supporting ‘terrorism’ but wrote to my editor demanding my dismissal. My reports a few weeks later, warning of future Hamas and Islamic Jihad opposition to Arafat, received a similar response.
Even our film series ‘From Beirut to Bosnia’, which questioned the content and consequences of Arafat’s agreement but largely dwelt on non-Palestinian Muslims and the West – received the same kind of treatment. When it was aired on the US Discovery channel in the early spring of last year, the New York Times television reviewer. Walter Goodman, reported critically that ‘most’ of the three-part series was about the Palestinians and that there was only a ‘reference’ to the Holocaust. This was untrue. Only just over a third of the series was devoted to the Palestinians – and far from making only a ‘reference’ to the Holocaust, we interviewed an Israeli survivor whose family was murdered in the Nazi genocide then took our cameras to the man’s original home in southern Poland, showed the recent desecration there of a Jewish graveyard containing the remains of Holocaust victims and filmed at the site of the Treblinka extermination camp where the Israeli’s mother had been murdered. I pointed out these errors of fact in a brief letter to the New York Times. They declined to publish the correction.
Critical analysis of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, signed at Araba on 26 October, was also absent. Only on the day of the ceremony – a moving affair in which King Hussein, ageing and sick, talked about the dead of two wars and of the world after his own death – did the Jordanian side publish the hitherto unread annexes to the agreement. These showed that the ‘leasing’ to Israel of Jordanian territory in the Baqura area (Naharayim in Hebrew) involved undertakings by the Jordanians not to tax the Israeli inhabitants who had ‘private land ownership rights and propriety [sic] interests’, or to apply land charges to them, ‘to protect and prevent harassment of any person entering the area’ and to permit uniformed Israeli police to enter and leave the area as they wished.
The mutual recognition of borders allowed the Jordanians to claim that they had for ever laid to rest the nightmare posed by the Israeli Right: turning Jordan into Palestine by ‘transferring’ the Palestinians of the West Bank across the Jordan river. Article 2 (6) of the treaty appears to resolve this question; the parties to the agreement, it states, ‘believe that within their control, involuntary movements of persons in such a way as to adversely prejudice the security of either party should not be permitted’. The Palestinians were the first to point out that the phrase ‘within their control’ might still permit a future right-wing Israeli government to drive Palestinians out of the West Bank on the grounds that it was the Palestinians themselves who chose to leave – which remains the official Israeli version of how the Palestinians left what is now Israel in 1948.
There is another disturbing paragraph in the treaty. Under the heading ‘Refugees and Displaced Persons’ – this refers to Palestinian refugees, although the document significantly fails to identify them as such – Article 8 (3) says that both Israel and Jordan will seek to resolve the problems of refugees ‘through the implementation of agreed United Nations programmes ... including assistance to their settlement’. And although the treaty declares itself aimed at a peace based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, careful reading of the text shows that the single paragraph in Article 8 (3) refers only to UN aid programmes not to UN resolutions – the machinery which the Palestinian refugees in Jordan relied on to take them ‘home’.
Unquestioned, too, went the mutual assumption of Clinton and King Hussein that the Jordanian people supported the treaty because their parliament ratified it. In the Arab world, the West has always adopted the comfortable policy of assuming that local dictators, kings and generals are loved by their people if those leaders do what the West wants (King Hussein/Yassir Arafat/possibly Hafez el-Assad, though this will depend on his desire to make peace on Israel’s terms), but hated by their people it the leaders oppose the West (Saddam Hussein/Colonel Ghaddafi etc). In Amman, however, it is very difficult to find more than a few Jordanians who are not suspicious of the treaty signed at Araba, who do not feel that it constitutes a necessary if humiliating surrender. If Jordanians were really overwhelmed with happiness at the peace treaty, as the Jordanian Government assured us they were, why did not a single Jordanian run into the streets of his capital that night to celebrate? Was it, perhaps, because up to 50 per cent – some say 70 per cent – of the population in Jordan are Palestinian? The ‘special role’ in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem offered to the King has already incurred the wrath of Yassir Arafat, who suspects that the King is being turned into a standby ruler of the West Bank in the event of a PLO collapse in Gaza.
An adviser of the King’s brother, Crown Prince Hassan, insisted to me that the value to the Arabs of the Jordanian peace treaty was that it had ‘de-Zionised Israel’ by defining Israel’s eastern frontiers. ‘Zionists don’t recognise frontiers,’ he said. ‘American, British, French and all other Jews are enthusiastic about Israel because it represents a dream. But when Israel becomes an ordinary humdrum country, it will lose its dream value. It will no longer be a sort of charismatic Vatican for Jews. A de-Zionised Israel cannot maintain its attraction for very long.’
Such assessments are common among the King’s friends but they do not reflect the reality that Israel remains, for Jews everywhere, the last defence of the Jewish people. And for Israel to receive recognition by its neighbours that it is a fully-fledged state will be a historic achievement unsurpassed since the time of Titus. If the ‘peace process’ is driven forward at its present speed, Israel will be the most important state in the Middle East, not the ‘humdrum’ nation which some Jordanians fondly imagine. Besides, those frontiers agreed with Israel include the borders between Jordan and the occupied West Bank – which the treaty fails to acknowledge as Palestinian territory.
Little wonder, then, that President Assad is not hurling himself into the arms of the American-Israeli ‘peace process’. Given what so many Arabs regard as the hidden injustices in the process, given Arafat’s ever-graver predicament, Assad wants water-tight guarantees: US troops on a demilitarised but returned Golan – which he may no longer get from the Republicans – and, most important of all, absolute adherence to UN Security Council resolutions, both over Golan and the still-occupied strip of southern Lebanon. Even in Beirut, Lebanese, who often resent Syria’s 20,000 strong military presence in their country, have been acknowledging that without Assad’s stewardship, their own country would have been ‘eaten up’ with unacceptable concessions by the ‘peace process’. The Israelis, American diplomats and an often sheep-like US press corps continue to portray Assad’s careful, suspicious approach as an ‘obstacle’ or ‘a reluctance to make peace’. The former Israeli foreign minister Abban Eban chided him on 3 December (on CNN): ‘Syria ... aspired to be the leader of the Arab world, instead of which they are lagging behind.’
But in Assad’s eyes, Syria remains the only Arab nation to stand by the original commitments on UN resolutions and the only country which will avoid the pitfalls of the two peace agreements already signed. It was Assad’s Minister of Information, Mohamed Salman, who noted on 28 October that Clinton had offered America as a ‘partner’ in the peace process and that this was ‘a development in the American position’. The Syrians talk now of ‘total withdrawal for total peace’, which is what many Arabs – many of them no friends of the Syrian regime – believe they should have held out for from the start.
It would be difficult to find a more secular critic of the peace agreements than Chafic el-Hout, Arafat’s former ambassador to Beirut, a beer-drinking old-style nationalist and PLO founder whose condemnation of Arafat is more incisive than any of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad leaders. He is uniformly pessimistic. ‘Do you think Jordan can maintain stability if things collapse in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Do you think Jordan is going to welcome Israeli tourists when they see Israeli soldiers still shooting Palestinians on their television screens? Don’t you think that giving King Hussein a “special role” in Islamic holy places in Jerusalem is going to frighten the Saudis into thinking that perhaps Mecca itself may one day come to be regarded as an international city? Don’t you see how Jordan’s and Israel’s plans for a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea will threaten the future of the Suez Canal? What has happened among the Palestinians – the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad – is going to widen into a bigger battlefield all over the Middle East. If we keep hiding like an ostrich, pretending not to see what is happening in Egypt, in Algeria, then power is going to shift from Arab nationalists to the Islamic movement.’
King Hussein has already warned Islamists in Jordan not to ‘undermine national unity’ or ‘propagate false views against the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement’. Arafat now claims, like Israel, that Iran is behind the Islamic movements in Gaza. It was the French news agency AFP which coaxed a PLO negotiator in Cairo to reveal on 18 October last year that the PLO had agreed to an Israeli demand that ‘hardliners opposed to peace’ would not be allowed to stand in Palestinian elections. So much for the ‘direct, free and general political elections’ promised in Article 3 of the Declaration of Principles. The United States supports the war against Islamic ‘terrorism’ – though not, curiously, in Algeria where it urges dialogue with an Islamic movement which has carried on a far more ferocious conflict against the secular, military-backed government and its supporters than Hamas has ever undertaken against Arafat or the Israelis.
If – we can no longer use the word ‘when’ – Arafat gets his state, then perhaps the situation might be saved. Many 1948 Palestinians know in their hearts that though they might one day live in the West Bank, they will never ‘return’ to their homes. I visited the Tawil family home in Haifa. Aunty Esma’s ground floor has been turned into fruit stores, most of them run by Israeli Arabs. The second floor, where Jad and Nada, Samir, Tawil and his brothers and their Aunty Selma lived, has been turned into offices by an Israeli businessman, most of whose family were sent to the gas chambers from their home in Salonika. The third floor, which Uncle George prepared for his bride, is occupied by a family of Moroccan Jews and a newly immigrated Russian couple. Samir has already given up hope of going back, tentatively approving of Arafat’s original agreement but increasingly concerned for its success.
In Chatila, many of the 1948 Palestinians lost their old front-door keys when the Phalangist militiamen blew up their homes during the 1982 massacre. Others burnt their precious land deeds because they thought they might escape death by posing as Lebanese if the documentary proof of their Palestinian birth was destroyed. Long afterwards, just one woman in Chatila retained the front door key from her house in Galilee. Abu lmad, the local leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – an opponent of Arafat – remembers what happened to that key. ‘It was after one of the big battles between the different Palestinian factions in the camp in the mid-Eighties. This woman came up to me in great anger and bitterness She said: “Look what you people have done to our country.” Then in disgust, she gave me the key and told me to give it to our leadership.’
The only key to survive in Chatila became a key of despair. We may soon discover whether the ‘peace process’ we have so carelessly embraced will produce the same result.
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