Vol. 18 No. 17 · 5 September 1996

Lost between War and Peace

Edward Said travels with his son in Arafat’s Palastine

10,864 words

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 Most of its Christian residents have been replaced by Muslims; it has considerably increased in size and is now full of office buildings, shops, restaurants, schools, institutes and taxis, all catering to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

‘By the way,’ Imad told me, ‘they’ve welcomed you to Palestine officially. You heard the broadcast, didn’t you?’ Apparently at 9.30 that morning on Arafat’s Voice of Palestine, one Yusif al-Qazzaz had gone on the attack, in a 20-minute programme entirely devoted to attacking me. ‘He called you an Orientalist who is against the Palestinian people. He also said that your criticisms of how they torture and imprison journalists are simply lies. It was all pretty angry and aggressive.’ During the next ten days I tried to get a tape of the broadcast but failed. Several friends gave me more details. I told myself that at least the regime took me seriously. At first, Wadie seemed alarmed, but not for long. ‘What incredible jokers they are,’ he said.

He stopped the car at a grocery store to pick up an oversized bag stuffed with cookies and chocolate on the way to his six Gaza friends in their hideaway somewhere in the bowels of Ramallah. I had no idea where it was, since we reached it by an exceptionally circuitous route, but the young men were vociferously welcoming. Their apartment had filthy yellow walls, dog-eared furniture and naked light bulbs hanging from the ceilings. It was colder indoors than out. Most of them were a fraction older than Wadie; all but one had been in solitary in Israeli jails for periods of one to three months; all were paralysed by the present situation in which the valid options – return to Gaza, go back openly to school, look for work – were closed to them. Two had once been supporters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but were now neither. There was one cherubic-looking young man – Ahmad – whose story seemed to summarise the impasse for Palestinians with all its absurdities and Kafkaesque conundrums. A Fatah student activist during the intifada, Ahmad was jailed, interrogated and tortured. In the process he lost his left ear. ‘They shook and slapped me with my head in a paper bag, for hours,’ he said. The others told similar stories of tahqiq, although it was only later that I gathered these measures were designed more to break the victim’s will than to extract information.

After Oslo Ahmad sought work with the Palestinian security forces, now the Territories’ chief employer, and Arafat’s instrument of patronage and control. ‘Do you know that he has 13 separate security forces?’ Ahmad informed us, proceeding to itemise such outfits as police, preventive intelligence, Force 17, presidential security, state security, foreign intelligence, regional security, military intelligence (I’ve forgotten a few) and then, in triumphant conclusion, ‘naval security’. ‘Naval security?’ I exclaimed: the Israelis control the sea around Gaza. Ahmad replied: ‘That’s why Arafat has sixty sailors stationed in Nablus.’ The young men roared with laughter at the absurdity of the naval personnel billeted on the West Bank, many miles inland. Ahmad continued with a look of almost sublime delight. He had been assigned the job of informing on students at Bir Zeit. ‘Then what?’ I asked. ‘Then we bring them in for tahqiq. Just as I used to be interrogated in the past, I now do the interrogating. It’s my turn.’ When I made a few disapproving comments he told me he hadn’t been given a salary for two years, was going to resign or at least see an influential relative who would get him what was owed him. In any case, he was a Palestinian security man who, according to the very security forces who employed him, was in Ramallah illegally.

‘Tell him about the appointments (ta’yeenat),’ Wadie said to Ahmad. The word was another one very much in currency. It signified Arafat’s unilateral appointment of favourite supporters from Tunisia, Jordan or the Gulf to positions in ministries, security groups and other similar jobs without regard for merit or for the sacrifices made by many competent West Bankers during the intifada. ‘Don’t forget the army of one million colonels,’ Wadie added with a grin. ‘Every time I go into headquarters,’ Ahmad continued, ‘I find a whole new set of officers with no assigned job, without even a desk – but they all get salaries, and they immediately outrank the rest of us.’ I realised that Ahmad was speaking about the building outside which the demonstration was taking place. ‘They’re not only his people from Tunis,’ Ahmad went on, ‘but cousins and nephews of rich families that Arafat needs. I have an uncle who’s just been elected to the Legislative Council. I’m going to camp in his living-room until I get my salary.’ It occurred to me that, strictly speaking, Ahmad’s role as a police spy required him to inform on himself.

Mohammed Alwany, a dark, bespectacled youngster, came in with a tray packed with glasses of boiling tea. Alwany was a science major, a quieter, more intellectually serious man than the others. The room was now filled with various neighbours and schoolmates who had heard that Wadie and Abu Wadie, as everyone called me, were there. The overriding impression I got was of energetic, agile and perceptive young men wasting their lives immured in the dingy flat, waiting for some change in the situation. Wadie had given them some of my recent articles criticising the results of the peace process: they were generally in agreement, apart from the other Mohammed – a cocky Islamist – who thought my views too secular (when I revisited them in July he told me that he hadn’t prayed for three months). We didn’t develop that argument, perhaps because too many Christians were in the room (besides Wadie and myself, an elderly neighbour Abu Mitry, whose brother was married to Natalia Makarova, had joined us), but we did get into how to solve their problem. All of them expressed a vehement desire to get married to an American woman right away. ‘It’s the only way for us to get out of here,’ they said in chorus.

On the way back, we slowed down for the soldiers. A flick of the wrist from one of them was all we got, and we sped on to West Jerusalem. It had stopped raining; the area resembled the hills around San Diego. Sure, we were able to drive around in our little rented car, but the sense of powerlessness was insidious. The peace process had become a new reality, but there were too many miseries left over from the past, too many inequities in the present and foreseeable future to help us round the corner into real peace and real independence. I think Wadie experienced the same frustration as I did. He told me at the hotel that his single-minded assault on Arabic had been a way of getting over the taunts of his Lebanese cousins and the awful experience of being an Arab-American schoolboy in Manhattan during the Gulf War. ‘By forcing my way into Arabic I could really be at home. I didn’t again feel as helpless as I did when they connected me with Saddam Hussein and terrorism. On the other hand,’ he added, wistfully. ‘I can talk, listen, understand, but aside from my translations and work for Hassan, I don’t do too much here.’

Wadie is never disconsolate for long. He carries around some gaily coloured juggling balls in his pocket, brings them out and starts to juggle. ‘It’s better than standing around,’ he said the next morning, as he brought me a rented ‘pele phone’, the Hebrew for ‘magic phone’, i.e. cellular phone, pronounced ‘belly-phone’ in Arabic, which is the major status symbol and an indispensable instrument in Palestine. Since you spend so much time in delays on the road (a ten-mile trip can take an hour and a half), you must have it with you at all times to make contact with anyone. Our routine takes us up and down the Jerusalem-Ramallah road, going to meet people whom Wadie and I think of as doing something in the present morass. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a West Bank press to consult as you start the day. The two main papers are al-Quds and al-Ayyam, recently begun by an old friend, a former Fatah operative called Akram Haniyé, who was deported by Israel in 1987, became a close adviser to Arafat in Tunis, is back in Ramallah and, having reportedly refused a political appointment, has been publishing his paper since the start of the year. It is better printed and put together than its rival, but I couldn’t see the difference in content: replication and primitive imitation are everywhere in the new Palestine, a wilderness of mirrors. Every item on the front page of al-Quds is bad news: house demolitions, 70 per cent unemployment because of the closure, food shortages, confiscations and so forth.

The margin of press freedom is minimal; the Authority has routinely imprisoned and threatened journalists. Before Oslo my articles were run by al-Quds; now, according to a cardiac surgeon I met in Nablus, I appear only in xerox copies passed around the West Bank. But the really odd thing is that a couple of days after the radio broadcast by Yusif al-Qazzaz, al-Ayyam ran a back-page guest column by Ghassan Zaqtan in which he defended my opposition to Oslo. A day after his column appeared, I ran into Zaqtan, a poet and journalist who grew up in Beirut, at the Ministry of Culture where he works. Another irony – one part of the Authority attacks, the other answers.

Hassan Barghouti, the DWRC’s founder and director, is tall and skinny; he has a serious back problem, the result of six years’ imprisonment and interrogation in Israeli jails. Despite an occasional wince, plus the awkward posture and stiff walk of the chronic sufferer from back pain, he communicated an attractive self-confidence. The Centre occupies offices on the sixth floor of the Bakri Building, downtown Ramallah’s largest, its ground floor filled with souvenir and shoe-shops. Wadie’s relationship with Hassan is almost fraternal, though Wadie keeps the deferential silence appropriate to the junior sibling. Barghouti chronicled the rise of Palestinian working-class sentiment during the intifada, and its decline since Oslo, as Fatah operatives took over and converted the unions into nationalist organisations. ‘This is our bane,’ he said with considerable animus, ‘the use of nationalist discourse to cover over social inequities, real economic injustices and the sorry state of our civil life generally. My idea has been to go in and help labourers who because of the incredible job shortages are either treated badly by their Palestinian employers or summarily fired. We’ – he nodded at Wadie, who had told us about this in December – ‘negotiated a settlement between the Ambassador Hotel and a dozen employees that they discharged unfairly. Wadie also helped us write up and translate a report on the unacceptable rate of child labour in the West Bank. He must also have told you how we visited the tanning plant in Nablus where workers are given no protection against the chemicals they use or the fumes they inhale.’ One of Wadie’s colleagues gave me a handful of pamphlets about workers’ rights that Wadie had edited and translated. Hassan later said that they described only a fraction of the real difficulty, which was to prevent Arafat from grabbing all the workers’ pension fund money now held by the Histadrut, Israel’s General Federation of Workers. ‘For all these years,’ he explained, ‘our people worked in Israel, sometimes at the rate of 100,000 labourers a day. Now there are only three or four thousand who are allowed to work there. Israel deducts money directly from their paychecks, as it has done all along, so that it has now accumulated into a considerable amount. Arafat is trying to convince the Israelis to give him the money, claiming that he is the only national authority.’ Once again nationalism is used as a means of blocking social justice.

Arafat’s office is in Gaza, as are many of his ministries, though some have branches in Ramallah and Jericho. This makes ordinary government, and a sense of continuity, order, stability impossible. There are three branches of the health ministry, for example; then there is Arafat’s brother Fathi, who directs the Red Crescent. A doctor I met in Nablus spoke of the ensuing confusion. Medicines are in constant short supply; though fourth-generation antibiotics have suddenly proliferated, they are useless in most cases, but somebody has made a killing on these super-sophisticated drugs. In the meantime everything else is unavailable. He also told me that 70 per cent of the serious illnesses on the West Bank are either cancer or heart-related, yet there is neither a cardiac unit nor an oncological service anywhere in Palestine. In addition, Arafat throws his weight behind one health ministry, then another, keeping all three off balance and in need of his patronage.

I could discern two sets of functioning civil institutions in Palestine: one is the network of Islamic welfare organisations which is especially strong in Gaza; the other is the group of NGOs, most of which began during the intifada when the Israelis made life very difficult for Palestinians (closed schools, 24-hour curfews, massive censorship, closures). Now Arafat’s Authority is battling to reduce, and perhaps even dissolve, their influence. For someone like Wadie who came to Palestine as a volunteer the obvious place to set down in was the NGO network: not only are most of them run by gifted and in some cases charismatic people like Samiha Khalil, the 70-year-old woman who was the only candidate to oppose Arafat in the January elections, but they are entirely staffed by residents of the West Bank or Gaza whose work began out of real and immediate needs.

The JMCC is a perfect example. Ghassan Khatib, who founded it, said that he got the idea when he saw wave after wave of foreign journalists arrive in the Territories to cover the intifada and no one on the Palestinian side able to give them systematic attention or information. He started to contact them, arrange for interviews, take them into towns and villages, and generally supply them with a Palestinian view of the complicated uprising. A political science professor at Bir Zeit University, Khatib was naturally linked to many of the intifada committees; when the negotiations began, shortly after the October 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, he was made a member of the Palestinian delegation in Washington.

He is a quiet-spoken, undemonstrative, middle-aged man. ‘Most of the ministries are not really doing much,’ he said. ‘Health and education are at least doing something, but the overall level of services is extremely low. Mostly’ – and here he echoed everyone I spoke to – ‘there are lots of director-generals and under-secretaries, large numbers of them, who are there as a way for Arafat to appease his supporters. But they don’t actually do anything. Except for the security apparatus, which is a going concern.’ I had recently read an article on this apparatus by Graham Usher, who does the best foreign on-the-spot reporting from Palestine; his estimate is that Arafat annually spends $500 million on it, and still comes up short. I was curious to know what the overall legal situation was, since the Authority did not have sovereignty over Area A but only self-rule. Khatib told me that a draft set of Basic Laws was circulating, but that it hadn’t been passed. (In August, after being challenged by the Legislative Council about the Constitution, Arafat lost his temper and withdrew the document from further discussion. ‘I will decide,’ he said.)

Another friend, a lawyer, told me later that Arafat had asked him to reconcile the commercial laws of the Gaza Strip (operating under Egyptian and Israeli jurisdiction) with those of the West Bank (formulated by the Jordanians and the Israelis). It was easy to do so and he turned in his report in early 1995, but nothing has been done. Merchants and investors therefore operate in a legal limbo; Arafat’s personal involvement is necessary before any significant business can be concluded. This reinforces the ordinary Palestinian’s sense of being lost (diya’ is the Arabic word for it that I heard over and over again) and powerless. With the Israeli closures and house demolitions – there were at least two on my second day there – and the Palestinian Authority’s detention, since the February bombings, of an estimated 12,000 ‘suspects’, has come a bitter realisation that this isn’t peace. One woman told me that Palestine was neither at war nor at peace nor independent – ‘frankly,’ she added, ‘I’m lost.’

A steady stream of publications comes out of the JMCC, partly to inform foreign journalists of what is taking place in Palestine, partly also as a way of telling a story that is more truthful than the PA’s. ‘Being in Jerusalem exempts us from Arafat’s control,’ said Wadie’s colleague Imad. ‘We publish the Palestine Report on a bi-weekly basis, plus we have a 24-hour service that delivers bulletins to all the news agencies and correspondents on noteworthy events.’ One day last January, for instance, they carried a critical interview with me that would never have made it into the West Bank papers. For its part Israel is far from careless about what information and discussion it tolerates. Yes, the JMCC can send out its reports by fax and e-mail, but anything that seems to challenge Israel’s real authority it definitely opposes. It requires confidence and enthusiasm to get things done in these circumstances.

Munir Fashie heads another NGO called Tamer, an association for improving general literacy and intellectual awareness. ‘Two of the main problems are the absence of role models and the inability to write concretely about anything,’ he told us when we went to see him in his spotless Ramallah office which, unlike all the others you visit, is not dominated by a big director’s desk. We sat in a circle with members of Tamer, who speak freely and show no deference to the boss. ‘Young people who look out on our world see no one they can admire or emulate; our leaders are corrupt and autocratic failures. So there’s a vacuum which we are trying to fill by encouraging ideas of self-development through reading.’ Tamer had developed the notion of reading-passports. Munir explained: ‘You get one of these passports as a child, and as you take out library books or buy them from somewhere we certify that in the passports. Then you can move up and get a higher level passport. As for lack of concreteness, we take out pages in al-Quds, for example, where we encourage people to express themselves about a given feeling, or situation in which they find themselves. The idea is to focus attention on who one is, and to try to do that not in the abstract, fraudulent way that is promoted by our nationalistic discourse, but by expressing oneself simply and directly. Modest perhaps, but we think of ourselves as planting seeds.’ One of Tamer’s associates is a handsome young woman, Safa, with a US graduate degree, who has pioneered sex education classes in Palestinian universities and schools. She now travels constantly throughout the Territories, giving lectures, demonstrations, showing films about intercourse, hygiene, harassment, infectious diseases and the like. ‘What I find most fascinating,’ she said to us, ‘is that most of the vocabulary I need is readily available in the classical Islamic tradition. It’s been there all along, buried under mounds of regressive prohibitions that actually misrepresent Islam for contemporary use.’

These are relatively isolated individual initiatives, however. The general climate is not encouraging. In March the Israeli police prevented a conference on Jerusalem from taking place in the Ambassador Hotel in Arab East Jerusalem. We had been told about the conference when Wadie and I went to pay a call on the Alternative Information Centre (AIC) in West Jerusalem; their publication, News from Within, which I receive every month and on whose honorary board I sit, provides excellent coverage of the Israeli scene by dissenting Israeli Jews. Tikvah Honig-Parnass, the journal’s editor, was particularly exercised by Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinians and quoted a leading writer, S.Yizaher, describing the Palestinians as cannibals. Such racist emotions, she said, had never been more prevalent. I should try to attend the conference, she suggested, although she had heard that it might well be banned.

And indeed it was. What looked like a small corps of Israeli soldiers in full battledress stopped traffic fifty yards from the Ambassador, which is perched on a hill in Sheikh Jarrah overlooking the Old City. We had to leave the car there and walk the rest of the way to the hotel. It was all I could do to restrain the usually unflappable Wadie from remonstrating with them. As we walked past he vented his spleen to me: ‘Here are these 19-year-olds with American rifles bullying Palestinians who simply take it.’ He was to repeat this several times while I was there. I was at a loss to know what to say. This had been our condition all of my life.

The basic difficulty is that for a Palestinian being pushed around by young people with rifles, it does not finally matter whether the soldiers are Arabs in countries like Egypt, Syria and Jordan or Israeli Jews on the West Bank or in Gaza. As an individual one feels alienated and demeaned. The regular confrontation of a sullen, almost impersonal authority directed at one’s personal freedom, in which one can only acquiesce without complaint – this was the reality that prevailed throughout the Middle East from my father’s generation under Ottoman and British rule to mine under Israeli and undemocratic Arab rule. Now my son was experiencing it. Each generation seemed to hand it on to the next. Israelis push us around because we are Palestinians; in Arab countries – even Egypt – we are routinely searched and detained at airports, despite our US passports; and wherever one goes one senses that Arab authority is crude, directed mainly at civilians, unrestrained by laws or constitutions.

A small group of people was standing at the hotel entrance. I greeted Tikvah, who introduced me to a chain-smoking, grey-haired man whom everyone addressed as Mikado. Michael Warchavski runs the AIC and is married to Lea Tsemel, whom I have known for a decade as an indefatigable Israeli lawyer stubbornly defending Palestinians in Israeli courts. Reminding me that Israel is an intensely legalistic country and that the only recourse was for Lea to be in court trying to get the ban lifted, Mikado explained that the police have the right to forbid any activity that conflicts with Knesset legislation passed a couple of years ago ruling ‘conformity with the Gaza-Jericho accords. So in this case,’ he noted in a matter-of-fact way, ‘the police have decided that a conference on Jerusalem in Jerusalem conflicts with the PLO-Israeli accords that ban any Palestinian political activity in the city.’ When I asked on what grounds an academic conference could be construed as political activity he said that Feisal Husseini’s name on the programme equalled political activity. Husseini is close to Arafat, and has been designated PA minister in charge of Jerusalem affairs; he also belongs to one of the three ‘notable’ Muslim families in Palestine (the others are the Nashashibis and the Nusseibehs). This adds to his status. ‘But AIC is an Israeli organisation,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Mikado replied. ‘It’s the nature of the activity that is banned and of course the fact that West Bank and Jerusalem Palestinians are participating.’

We hung around for about an hour without any change in the situation; even the press conference was proscribed. Then we went back to the car. Just as we were getting in the ‘belly-phone’ rang: our appointment with the PA minister had come through. He was expecting us at his Ramallah office. We headed north again with some apprehension. I had no idea what our reception would be like. I sometimes suspected (though I was usually able to banish the thought from my consciousness) that Arafat, or one of his over-zealous security people, might mean me some physical harm, or that they would try to detain me in some fashion. Haider Abdel Shafi, the elderly Palestinian political leader who is universally respected and admired in the Territories, had sent me a message before I left the US saying that I should not come at all. I took that to mean that I should not come to Gaza where Arafat’s writ is more absolute; on the West Bank he is far less in evidence, and – I found out later – much less interested in what goes on. Gaza, after all, is his power base. Although Wadie had been eager for me to visit, he called about a month before I left the US and suggested that it might be better if I didn’t give any lectures or make any public pronouncements. During two earlier visits I had given lectures at Bir Zeit and been sought out by the local press. I decided to forego lecturing and interviews this time since I didn’t feel that I could muzzle myself. I had never before given much mind to physical threats. Now, because of my illness, because of Arafat’s alliance with the Israelis and the volatility of Palestinian opinion, I felt more vulnerable.

All this weighed on my mind as we drove up to Ramallah in silence. The rain increased in intensity, the flooded roads and the ever more anarchic traffic in Ramallah adding to my sense of enervation. I had decided to seek out a meeting with Yasir Abd Rabbo, Minister of Information and Minister of Culture. I’ve known him since the mid-Seventies. Well-educated, married to Liana Badr, who is also my friend and an accomplished novelist, he has long struck me as being a cut above the other PLO regulars in intelligence and finesse. Once a leading member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Marxist-Leninist group headed by Naief Hawatmeh, he had broken off from that group because of Hawatmeh’s post-Cold War authoritarianism and started a new party, Fida’, of uncertain political status, which neither grew very much nor prevented him from becoming close to Arafat during the Tunis years. He was very much a part of Arafat’s inner circle of advisers at the time of the peace initiatives: in a changing political environment, he seemed to be a voice of reason, and this enhanced his prestige and visibility. Because he was close to Arafat I thought that what he said would directly reflect Arafat’s thinking and perhaps that of the Authority itself.

The elevator wasn’t working in the Ministry building, a gaunt, unprepossessing hulk that squatted on the outskirts of Ramallah. We trudged up to the sixth floor and entered an anteroom with a couple of coffee-stained plastic chairs and a ramshackle desk adding to the place’s ill-kept appearance. Wadie’s face was already registering disappointment and frustration. I perhaps added to his dismay by noting how the outer office replicated the PLO’s offices in Fakahani, the lower-middle-class area of Beirut which in the Seventies had become a byword for the organisation’s sloppiness and general heedlessness. Because male Palestinians are extremely heavy smokers, the collection of staff members and random visitors lounging about the landing and the waiting-room had created a thick blue cloud which immediately had us coughing and sneezing. A young woman came out of the inner office, offered us coffee, and asked us to wait a few moments. Forty minutes later, we were ushered in.

Abd Rabbo was very cordial. He is a good-looking, trim man in his early fifties, with (for Palestinians) unusually light brown hair and chiselled features. We kissed each other on both cheeks and both of us turned to embrace Liana, who came into the room just after Wadie and I entered. She is a striking black-haired woman with an open, animated face that radiates energy and enthusiasm. I was glad to see the two of them take to Wadie, who is roughly the age of their two sons, both of them away at American universities. Wadie explained in Arabic that he had been on the West Bank for several months and that he only had a few more to go. It sometimes surprises Arabs that I can still speak the language after so many years in the US – but that my son, a patently American young man, can do so is almost a shock.

Abd Rabbo’s office is handsomely appointed, in appealing contrast to the other rooms that we saw. As he had just come back from one of his endless trips to Gaza, I asked him how ’things were going’, a vague phrase that I hoped would draw him out. ‘There’s a tremendous amount to be done,’ he said, ‘especially here’ – he gestured towards the window, through which the drenched grey landscape could barely be discerned – ‘given that the man’ (Arafat was never referred to by name) ‘is only interested in Gaza.’ I asked what it was like to live under Arafat’s leadership.

‘Dreadful. You have to realise that all day long he goes through a mountain of papers that have accumulated on his desk overnight. Everything must be approved by him, from a request for a holiday by a Commerce Ministry employee, to whether one of his cars should have its muffler repaired, to whether X or Y should attend the next meeting with the Israelis. There are two fixed points in his day around which his entire time revolves; both of them are night appointments. One is his daily eight o’clock meeting with the heads of all his security forces. He’s absolutely fixated on his various security organisations, he takes nothing else anywhere near as seriously. The other fixed time is when he directs the various newspaper editors about the next morning’s headlines and front-page items.’ In December Maher al-Alami of al-Quds was jailed for a week because he didn’t put a Christian prelate’s flattering comparison between Arafat and Omar ibn al-Khattab, the seventh-century conqueror of Jerusalem, on the front page. ‘Beyond that, the man has no vision, no idea of where we are going, no plan, no sense of direction. All he deals with are the details, and he loves those because they assure him complete control. And they take up all his time. That’s the way he stays on top: everything has to pass through him. It’s a boon for me to be here, just a little beyond his immediate reach. No one can spend a penny without his approval and knowledge. He’s now even into business through the monopolies he’s set up that allow him to control petroleum products, tobacco, cement, building material and a few others. A few of us try to guide him through the horrors we’re going through as a people. Let me tell you how he operates. He heard from someone that American Presidents can declare suddenly stricken sections of the country disaster areas. So he came into one of our meetings a few days ago and said that he planned to designate Gaza a disaster area. One of us said to him that it wouldn’t work here because we are so dependent on outside aid: if one of the donors heard that despite the sums already pouring in and being used mostly to pay his security bills, Gaza was called a disaster area, there would be no further money. It took us several hours to dissuade him. The next day he came back with the same idea, and we had to go through the whole thing a second time.’

‘Or take the Sharm el Sheikh summit. Although he didn’t seem to be aware of it, Clinton had slotted him in for a half-hour private meeting. We prepared a list of issues to bring up with Clinton that would try to get him beyond Israeli security and the fight against Hamas, which are the main concerns of American policy here; after all, we have very pressing needs that include getting some relief from the Israeli closures. Arafat put the list in his pocket, went into the meeting and never looked at it or referred to what we had agreed on. I was there and from time to time I tried to prod him; it was no use. Clinton told him that his own re-election bid as well as Peres’s depended in a sense on Arafat. Instead of using that fact as leverage to extract something for us from the Americans, Arafat went off at a tangent, boasting about how many Hamas members he’s put away, how well he’s doing against terrorism and the like. He had no idea that to the Americans and the Israelis he is an asset – that they need him for the peace process, and for their success at the polls. He finds it very difficult to concentrate for very long. And we are the worse for it.’

This was profoundly depressing stuff. Abd Rabbo went on for almost ninety minutes in this vein. Liana then added that as someone working in the cultural field she and her colleagues were desperate to undertake projects in film, theatre, photography; nothing was being done because (again) most of the money went into ‘security’ and besides, the sense of being completely alone, suspended between war and peace was too much for Palestinians to handle. To this Wadie added that everyone’s stifling sense of confinement was made worse by the absence of freely available papers and magazines, of movies and theatres. It was in the hope of seeing foreigners, having coffee in a pleasant place, feeling that one was in contact with the outside world, that the less disadvantaged were drawn into hotels like the American Colony. Even comfortably-off professionals like my friend the urological surgeon Mahmoud el Acker could only get passes to Jerusalem for a few hours; we had seen him at the Ramallah mahsoum (the Hebrew word for road-block that every Palestinian uses) rushing to recover his pass from the Israelis so that he could spend six hours in Jerusalem seeing patients.

All of a sudden the meeting was over: Abd Rabbo and Liana had to hurry to another appointment, although we did promise to see them again. This never happened – the phone lines were down. I still berate myself for not asking Abd Rabbo why he doesn’t resign. This question has obsessed me since the beginning: why do all the people on whose credibility Arafat depends continue to serve him, why don’t they quit in protest? A few days after I left Palestine Wadie sent me an interview with Abd Rabbo, published in Dafatir, a journal of the Culture Ministry; in it he said (I think for the first time publicly) that Oslo contained major mistakes, and that we are now in the worst fix we have ever been in. Yet Arafat’s astonishing powers of survival and domination – plus, alas, the unwillingness of so many good people to confront him – allow him to go on as before. During the meetings of the Legislative Council that took place while we were there he was reported to have barred any investigation of his control over the PA’s money.

‘Every organisation here,’ Wadie told me one afternoon, ‘ is run by a boss who’s like Arafat, who wants to do or control everything. There are no role models other than the one he offers. So they all reign over their NGOs and don’t even bother to have elections; most of them founded the NGOs and have remained presidents ever since.’ Maybe, I suggested, this is what dislocation and insecurity breed, this need to hold onto one’s position of authority indefinitely, this feeling that one is indispensable. I am torn about this, since quite a few groups have done crucial things, like Samiha Khalil’s In’ash al-Usra, a ‘family rehabilitation’ project in Ramallah: it trains nurses and dressmakers, provides kindergarten and daycare centres for working mothers, runs bakeries and craftshops that sell their wares for profit. A formidable personality, ‘Um Khalil’, as she is known, has been running the whole enterprise of about five thousand people for years and years; she has an able group of volunteers, but everyone knows that she is the boss. We were impressed with the three buildings where the organisation is housed – she took us through them room by room. But you do have the feeling that if she didn’t run it, it wouldn’t exist: or perhaps that’s what her commanding presence makes you feel. Is that the only model for the new Palestine?

Wadie and I put a lot of stock in what Raja Shehadeh, a middle-aged West Bank lawyer, has to say. As a prospective law student, my son is interested in how Raja managed at the same time to become a successful practising attorney and, with little apparent prejudice to his practice, establish al-Haq, the Palestinian human rights organisation that won international recognition during the Seventies and Eighties. In the hasty, bustling Palestinian world Raja stands out for his ability to analyse and reflect with enormous precision. He’s also someone who cares about language, not in the enthusiastic, frequently falsifying way that many of our politicians have of using words to affirm illusions, or create a collective realm that is unfaithful to the people it describes. He is one of the few to have taken seriously the texts of the Accords, both as legal and linguistic documents. The evidence I have suggests that none of the Palestinian negotiators understood exactly what was being put down, and what they subsequently agreed to. We weren’t surprised to find him in a sombre mood when we met him and his American wife, Penny Johnson, for dinner that evening. What I was unprepared for was how stubbornly he defended his decision to withdraw from public life. ‘It’s no use at all,’ he told us. ‘ I am very disillusioned, and I don’t feel I can contribute anything positive to what’s happening. Our people are oblivious to what they’re doing, and what the Israelis are doing. The situation is getting so disadvantageous to us that I am afraid nothing will reverse or stop it.’

In the middle of our last day together, Wadie drove me to Bethlehem to get a look at the so-called by-pass that the Israelis have been constructing near the town. It is costing $42 million and is known as the Gilo-Gush Etzion highway; it links Jerusalem with the settlements south of Bethlehem. You see such roads all over the West Bank. Wide and obtrusive, they are meant to go around the main Palestinian population centres, connect up with the settlements, and make it possible for Israelis to punctuate West Bank life without having to see Palestinians. They reminded me of the South African roads that skirted the black townships; I recall driving in May 1991 from Cape Town to Stellenbosch on such a road without noticing those townships until – only very momentarily glimpsed around a curve – they were pointed out to me by an ANC friend. As Wadie and I entered Bethlehem itself a new road and concrete barricade had been erected near the site of Rachel’s tomb; it slowed up traffic on the Palestinian side to such an extent that people could enter or leave by the north road only with great difficulty. The Israeli side of the divided road was remarkable for its powerful, almost arrogant calm, in marked contrast to the crowded, harried appearance of the Palestinian side, narrower, muddy, filled with potholes that were never going to be repaired.

Our last day was also the one we had set aside for a tour of the Jerusalem settlements with my oldest Israeli friend, Israel Shahak. It was his idea and, being of a resolute temperament, he was not to be denied, although of course the upshot was that our mood turned sharply worse. At dinner a few nights before he had already depressed us by detailing the ways in which the present situation in the Territories was the most dreadful he had seen since 1967. Shahak is a distinguished (slightly eccentric) intellectual, the only Israeli Jew that I know personally who has been wholly honest and outspoken in his criticisms of what he calls Israel’s ‘Zionistic’ policies towards the Palestinians. A Polish Holocaust survivor, he was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University and the founder of the Israeli League of Human Rights. Now retired, he continues to supply me (as he has for over twenty years) with thousands of pages of translation from the Hebrew press, along with his own commentaries, reports, books and pamphlets that make the standard Western journalistic accounts of Israel look like a crude comic-book. He’s in frail health but as erudite as ever. As we drove out towards the settlements, Wadie in the driver’s seat as usual, Shahak and I talked about music, which he listens to constantly. He told me about a radio programme he had just recorded about politics in music, in which, for instance, he played extracts from works that illustrate the changing status of women from the 18th to the end of the 19th century; he ended with a passage from the Missa Solemnis, a work he characterised over the air as ‘not peace, but the struggle for peace’. I took this to be a reminder to his Israeli audience that they were still very far from peace.

‘The reason I want you to see this is that you should have no illusions at all about what is being done in Jerusalem,’ he said as we dawdled in an appalling traffic jam going out of the city towards the north-west. Soon we were on Shumel Hanavi Street, which took us directly into Ramot, a gigantic concentration of extremely unattractive apartment blocks affixed to the gentle hills that ring the city. Ramot is not a hastily thrown-up collection of housing units but a small city containing almost forty thousand Israeli Jews, who now live on land acquired during the 1967 war. Ramot is served by regular buses that run to and from downtown Jerusalem. Though there isn’t much street life or vegetation Ramot has stores, sports clubs and restaurants. It was late afternoon and Wadie drew attention to five or six Arab workers straggling home after a day’s work. ‘I can’t get over that sight, even though I see it all the time,’ he said a little bitterly. ‘We are the coolies here.’

‘Nothing will remove these settlements except for a natural cataclysm or a really tremendous military operation,’ Shahak pronounced dramatically. ‘Otherwise they are permanent.’ We drove out of Ramot to another large settlement, Giv’at Zeev, that abuts the Arab town of Beit Hanina. ‘You see,’ he said simply. Finally, at Shahak’s request, Wadie drove us a few hundred yards from his quarters in Er-Ram (Area A), where the West Bank settlements of Neve Ya’acov (population almost twenty thousand) and Pisgat Ze’ev (thirty thousand) lie just beyond Central Jerusalem in the north-eastern West Bank hinterland.

Neither Wadie nor I said anything to Shahak about our breakfast meeting that day with Feisal Husseini, from whose Orient House office in East Jerusalem the Palestinian effort to preserve (and perhaps even recover) East Jerusalem is run. In contrast to the sheer, overwhelming (if charmless) power of the settlements, with their assertion of Israeli strength, Husseini’s soft-spoken, optimistic accents had a kind of unintended frivolity, even irrelevance. Husseini showed us lists of housing units that Palestinians were entitled to build in East Jerusalem. When I asked whether they were actually being built (the number seemed to fluctuate between eight hundred and thirty thousand) Husseini said no, but that once the money was raised they would be built forthwith. It sounded very much like Arafat’s refrain, for which the Israelis mercilessly upbraided him, that there was going to be a jihad for Jerusalem. In the meantime more and more housing was being built around northern Jerusalem, thereby consolidating Israeli domination of the area from Ramallah in the north to Hebron in the south. ‘The best thing Palestinians could do for Palestinians who have not been here,’ Shahak asserted, ‘is to have someone take pictures of all these buildings to show the reality of the situation.’ And, I thought to myself, demoralise diaspora Palestinians still further.

Throughout my visit to the new Palestine I was haunted by an observation made to me over the phone about a year ago by my friend Ibrahim. ‘What you sense when you are here is that there is a mind working on their side; its effects are felt on all Palestinians. You don’t feel that there is any mind on our side.’ ‘We can think,’ Wadie said impetuously, ‘but the question is how to get past the apathy and self-hatred.’

I was reminded of a visit to the University of Puerto Rico six years ago. One of the historians there told me that the tragedy of political life on the island is that people have been stuck in the status debate – should we remain a commonwealth, become independent, or are we really only a US colony? – for almost the whole century. In the meantime, the general condition seems to deteriorate. In Palestine, I felt, it would be a good thing if we could have a status debate, but we are not there yet. After three-quarters of a year there Wadie now feels that he too is not moving forward. The daily tensions and uncertainties have accumulated; frustration turns into neck and head pains, insomnia, weight loss. My wife and I think it is time for him to leave, and he is coming round to that view. ‘But,’ he told me on our way to the airport, ‘I will always come back.’ At the airport departing passengers are put through a long period of intense and, in my opinion, pointless questioning by a team of young Israeli security personnel. ‘Why did you come; who did you see; what did you do; give us names, people and places, where did you stay?’ The young American woman ahead of us was reduced to tears under the grilling. When I asked an airline employee why the unpleasantness when one was leaving, as opposed to arriving, he shrugged his shoulders. ‘A mind at work,’ I muttered to myself as I rushed to the gate with about two minutes to spare.

Postscript, 20 August: I write these lines from a New York hospital bed. Wadie and I were again in Palestine for a few days in early July, I to attend a meeting, he once again to accompany me and take me around. Since I had left in March, Peres had invaded Lebanon, created 300,000 refugees, killed about two hundred civilians and wounded thousands more. Yet, as Israel Shahak had predicted in March, he lost the election. In Palestine the situation had deteriorated considerably. Arafat’s security people seemed everywhere on the West Bank. He had requisitioned the entire six-storey Ministry of Education for his ‘presidential’ office in Ramallah and in addition caused a demonstration in the city by confiscating several acres for a new personal residence there. Mrs Arafat was spending the summer in Deauville.

A new spirit of resistance was apparent among members of the Legislative Council – at least those whom I met – and that was clearly annoying to Arafat, who was described to me as screaming obscene epithets at his colleagues, including Abdel Shafi, who he thought had gone too far. Yet thanks to his total control of the Authority’s money and the security services he was getting away with murder. Literally. A few days ago a spokesman admitted to having killed seven Palestinians under torture. Hundreds are picked up and detained, so much so that in late July Arafat’s men were finding themselves – like Israeli soldiers during the intifada – shooting at stone-throwing crowds in Nablus and Tulkaram.

His powers of co-option are formidable. My friend and former student Hanan Ashrawi had (inexplicably to me) accepted a position as minister in his Authority. Two members of his entourage whom I had known before Oslo followed me around by telephone in an attempt to get me to make up with him. I refused to speak to them or to see him. Two weeks ago, by order of the Minister of Information, Abd Rabbo, security men appeared in all Gaza and West Bank bookshops and confiscated every one of my books. I am now banned in Palestine for having dared to speak against our own Papa Doc.

Send Letters To:

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


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


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.

Ira Katznelson
Columbia University

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.

Edward Said
Columbia University

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.

Hazhir Teimourian
London SW1

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.

Ira Katznelson
Columbia University

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.

Isaac Levi
Columbia University

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.

Israel Shahak

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.

Ian Gilmour
House of Lords

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?

Edward Said
Columbia University

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?

David Kuhrt
London N8

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.

Ira Katznelson
Columbia University

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?

Jacob Mendlovic
Toronto, Ontario

send letters to

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


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences