Vol. 21 No. 1 · 7 January 1999

Unoccupied Territory

Edward Said sees a new opening for Palestinians and Israelis

2810 words

When I was filming with the BBC in Palestine during February and March 1997, I was especially conscious, in places like Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, of the unpleasant quality of daily life for most Palestinians, whose capacity to earn money or travel has been greatly curtailed since Oslo; whose land and homes are under constant threat; and whose life under Chairman Arafat’s dreadful Authority (buttressed by CIA and Mossad support) has become a nightmare. At least it was possible to render in images the tiny bit of territory – about 3 per cent – controlled by the Authority: controlled, that is, except for exits and entrances, water resources and security, all of which Israel still holds onto. The last scene of the film put things very starkly: land was being expropriated on a daily basis, with no one, certainly no one official, able to stop the Israeli bulldozers. Palestinian workers do the construction work on Jewish settlements – the most terrible irony of all; their leaders are unwilling (for reasons I can’t understand) to stop this by providing alternative employment. The general impoverishment of Palestinian political and economic life is no where more evident and cruel.

I returned to Palestine at the end of 1998; the Wye River agreement was still fresh in everyone’s memory, and quickly dismissed by all those I spoke to. I had the impression that somewhere in the wings there were teams of Israeli and Palestinian researchers making sense of the agreement (there is now an amazing network of institutes and think-tanks throughout the Palestinian territories, most of them funded by the Europeans, singly or in groups – and many of which work together with Israeli counterparts. Since I am not an expert, or a policymaker, or a journalist, or a candidate for a job, I became aware of this sizeable enterprise out of my rear-view mirror, so to speak). Undoubtedly a great deal is invested in the peace agreement.

There is, in a sense, nothing but repetition. Everywhere I went, the same questions were asked, and the same points raised (e.g. Arafat’s promise to declare a state on 4 May 1999 when a state was already declared in 1998). The fraudulent National Council is to be summoned again to do Arafat’s bidding ‘democratically’. And still the Israeli settlers are on the move; more villages are threatened, more roads are built, more land is expropriated. A few days after my arrival, Ariel Sharon urged the settlers to take as many hills as they could, as soon as they could. The next morning on the West Bank my Jerusalem taxi driver pointed out a new settlement consisting of half a dozen caravans parked on a hill just outside the city. Abu Mazen, one of Arafat’s many number twos, says that Sharon is no longer the man who invaded Lebanon, laid siege to Beirut for two months, bombed the city indiscriminately, was responsible for Sabra and Shatila and gave unqualified support to the settlers. I was surprised that Abu Mazen didn’t defend General Pinochet on the same grounds.

I was in Palestine at the invitation of Bir Zeit University, which was holding a conference on the subject of the Palestinian landscape – its history, representation, geography, contestation. Bir Zeit is about ten kilometres away from Ramallah, the largest West Bank city, and also the capital and seat of government for the Palestine Authority. Though privately owned, Bir Zeit is the closest thing to a national Palestinian university – secular, liberal, open, despite the enormous financial and political problems of maintaining such a place at such a difficult time. As for the conference itself, by any standards it was a remarkable affair. Local participants, as well as a few foreign guests in many diverse fields, produced interesting paper after interesting paper on such topics as representations of Palestine and ideology, patterns of settlements by different conquerors, landscape and memory, travellers’ accounts, geographical discourse and archaeological dispute. There was an astonishingly large number of people always in attendance (three or four hundred people for sessions that ran from 9 a.m. till 7 p.m.). And all around us on the West Bank the unending clashes between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents were taking place – a live demonstration of the conflict over the landscape’s form and destiny.

Azmi Bishara, the charismatic Palestinian Knesset member, had set up a public meeting for me in Nazareth, where I was to encounter Palestinian Israelis for the first time in such a forum. Mouin Rabbani, a friend who works in a twinning venture with Dutch and Palestinian Municipal Councils, drove me from Bir Zeit to Nazareth, a three-hour drive via Nablus, Jenin and the Israeli town of Afula. Outside Nablus we picked up a young hitch-hiker who was going to Zabbabdeh, a Christian village about ten kilometres from Jenin in the northern West Bank. During our conversation it transpired that our passenger was a croupier-in-training at the new Palestinian casino that had just opened in Jericho. ‘Do you travel this way every day?’ we asked him – the journey is long and inconvenient. ‘No, just until the training is over. As it is, I only have to be there for a few hours a day while the casino runs on a part-time schedule. Once our training is over and the casino runs 24 hours a day we’ll live in dormitories next to it; the Austrian manager lives in one of the nearby Israeli settlements, and so do all the foreign staff.’ Not being a casino habitué, I tried to find out what exactly he was being trained for. ‘Blackjack’, he said in English – a game I know how to play, unlike poker, baccarat or craps, in which he was next to be instructed. Zabbabdeh struck me as a prosperous place. ‘We have everything here,’ the young man said. ‘Even Fee-agra.’ Uneven development to say the least.

In Nazareth, Azmi had rented Frank Sinatra Hall for the evening. Sinatra was a long-time supporter of Israel who had apparently donated the money for a sports facility to be used by Jews and Arabs (Nazareth being the largest Arab town in Israel proper); later the facility was converted into a meeting centre for the Histadrut, and when we got there I was told that it was always available to rent. ‘Even for me,’ I thought to myself. I was flattered that quite a large audience (for a Sunday night) had fetched up, all of them Israeli Palestinian citizens, of whom there are roughly a million – 20 per cent of Israel’s population. Azmi represents the new breed of ‘1948 Palestinians’, as they are called: he is terrifyingly fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, English and German and has an in-your-face style with Israelis. He is much admired by his constituents, who see him not as a lackey of one of the large Israeli parties or of Arafat’s PLO, but as an intellectual who speaks for self-determination through citizenship and equality for Jew and Arab. He is as much a threat to the established Arab order as he is to Israel.

In Nazareth that night he introduced me to a polite but inquisitive crowd. I mentioned that the event was something of a homecoming for me since my mother had been born and was brought up in Nazareth, where her father was the pastor of the Baptist church, which he had built himself. The occasion also gave me the chance to say how lacking my political formation had been in any knowledge of Israeli Palestinians, who had been regarded in the Arab world more or less as traitors for staying behind in Israel as non-Jewish citizens. It now struck me that Israeli Palestinians have become crucial for our future as a people: their circumstances as non-Jews in a Jewish state dramatise the anomalies of nationalism and theocracy throughout the Middle East. Nationalism had become the dead-end of our political life, demanding endless sacrifices and the abrogation of democracy for the sake of national security. This is true in Israel and in every Arab country. In Lebanon, for example, where large concentrations of Palestinian refugees have been totally forgotten by the Oslo process, there is a parallel with the plight of Israeli Palestinians, except of course that the latter are not homeless, only without full political rights. They are allowed to vote, but not to buy, lease or sell land, 92 per cent of which is held in trust for ‘the Jewish people’; like all Palestinians, including myself, Israeli Palestinians do not have immigration rights and are not covered by the Law of Return. So there are now the makings of a campaign, on behalf of Israeli Palestinians, for full citizenship: a secular campaign which provides the basis of renewed political struggle and serves as a platform around which we can rally – Arabs as well as Jews.

I found it odd that even at Bir Zeit University, where I held an open meeting with the students a day or so later, there were no questions or declarations by the religious people – the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who occupy a small majority of the Student Council seats and were visibly present in the hall. Perhaps they were there out of curiosity: certainly they had nothing to say or ask. The other students put five or six questions about the Wye agreement (why did the Americans portray it as a great achievement, and what alternative was there?), and went on to ask about the role of the writer in exile (why don’t you think about moving here?). They wanted answers to theoretical questions (new research methods in history and social sciences generally) and my views on contemporary issues (the role of students, problems of identity, collective memory and the struggle against attempts to quash it). The impression I had was of a highly politicised, sceptical and self-conscious new generation, unlike its teachers in its avoidance of collective cant, automatic language, ready-made sentiment. Exhilarating, but demanding stuff, I thought, promising myself to try the same format with Arab and Jewish students in Israeli universities when I return this year as a guest of the radical Israeli Anthropological Association. I found it all much more encouraging than my meetings with prominent members of the new political class, whose overall attitude was both submissive and aggressive: all statements and hidden agendas – very little self-doubt.

The next day, at the invitation of Lina Jayussi, a young woman running a research group on ‘Knowledge, Secularism and Society’ at the Van Leer Institute in West Jerusalem, I found myself facing about thirty Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. The building is a few metres from the house in which I was born and which has now become the offices of the appallingly fundamentalist International Christian Embassy. It wasn’t clear to me what I was supposed to speak about. I was exhausted, perhaps by illness, perhaps by the sheer emotional pressure of being in the place, and perplexed by the swirling currents of ideology and passion all around me in the country. I stammered out a few critical words on the politics of identity, the need for new visions of inclusion and so on, and soon provoked a series of far more interesting interventions than my own from the assembled group, all of them young, academic, fluent in English. I said something about the importance of geographical thought (as opposed to the temporal variety) to my sense of culture and empire – the Bir Zeit landscape conference still fresh in my mind – and this elicited a remarkable set of responses. For the first time in six years of direct intellectual exchange with Arabs and Jews on the politics of Palestine and Israel, I was suddenly aware that we had crossed the rhetorical barricades and had entered a relatively new territory of common interest to Israeli Jews and Palestinians. No one defended actually existing Zionism or old-style Palestinian nationalism. Near the end of our discussion, which lasted for almost two hours and which had now been joined by Azmi Bishara, it dawned on me that I was speaking in an Israeli institution, despite the presence of Palestinians, and that I was confident in speaking openly and in an unrestrained way about the moral responsibility borne by Israel for the Palestinian nakba, or catastrophe. I came away from this short sojourn with a newly strengthened conviction that it was important for Palestinian intellectuals to devote more time to Palestinian students and, equally, to take our message into Israel.

Two days later, I was in Egypt for a student’s viva at the University of Tanta, a grimy, bustling and overcrowded Nile Delta city of two million people, midway between Cairo and Alexandria. The student was a brilliant young man, who had worked with me on Conrad for a couple of years in New York. When I brought up my Jerusalem and Nazareth experiences with Egyptian friends of unimpeachable nationalist credentials, I was immediately warned against having relationships with Israelis, especially at an institutional level. Even though Egypt has formally been at peace with Israel for almost twenty years, no Egyptian intellectual, artist or writer of note has visited Israel, or engaged in dialogue with non-government or non-Labour Party Israeli intellectuals. Palestinian universities as a matter of course do not invite Israeli academics or students to participate in conferences or seminars, not even those known to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. One of my friends told me that given so many incursions by the Israeli Army into campuses, Palestinians feel that visitors to Israeli faculties would be seen as extensions, or protégés, of the Army. Not having lived through these traumas, I’ve tended to keep my own counsel. In Egypt, however, I was a good deal more forthcoming.

To some of my Egyptian friends, well-known as writers and intellectuals, I said that Palestinians suffered a great deal from their confinement within territory whose exits and entrances were all controlled by the Israeli Army. They replied that it was a matter of national commitment not to go through Israeli checkpoints, not to get passports stamped, or apply for Israeli visas; not to show any sign of ‘normalisation’ with Israel so long as it remained an occupying force. To this I repeated the answer Palestinians gave me: these intellectuals wouldn’t be coming to ‘normalise’ relations with Israel, but to express solidarity with our struggle for Palestinian self-determination, to help in our institutions, to give readings, lectures, and the like to our students, to make appearances whose goal would be both to raise morale and to get to know our problems as Palestinians at close hand, concretely, intimately. Besides, I added, your position more or less ignores the Palestinian population of Israel: don’t they have a right to be heard and seen by you? I don’t think my argument quite made the impression I wanted, but I sensed here and there a glimmering of a new attitude – at least among students and younger people, vastly freer in their thought than their teachers and senior leaders. As for my own position, I have made it clear that because of our disproportionate weakness vis-à-vis Israel we must launch bold initiatives to carry our message to precisely those Israelis who for years have thrived on our absence and our silence.

This is risky for all sorts of reasons, physical as well as political. But I am convinced that it is what we diaspora Palest inians need to do, despite the difficulty and unpleasantness of confronting die-hard Israeli nationalists in their intellectual sanctuaries, where the whole question of Palestine is now simply a matter of separation (as the relation between blacks and whites had been in apartheid South Africa), of Israeli security, of tactical fixing. The injustice done to us as a people has yet to be taken up as part of the history of postwar and post-Holocaust politics. And unless we bring it up, as my children’s generation constantly do, refusing to hide behind the historical forgetfulness espoused by Arafat and his tiny band of true believers, we will continue to live through its agonies. This is as true for Israelis as it is for us. The consequences of 1948 just won’t go away, partly because our conflict with Zionism is so specific, partly because our situation during the last fifty years has festered beneath a number of cosmetic changes, and remains unrectified, under-analysed, morally and politically unacknowledged by most Israeli liberals and Israeli supporters. More significant, however, is the impression I had that beneath the official and institutional status quo, a healthy disorder bubbles away among young people who are very close to total impatience with the manifest failure of the present generation. Incite them, I was urged by a senior UN diplomat in Palestine, there is no other hope. He’s right, I now think.

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