Miles from Palestine

Robert Fisk

Around eight years before the Palestinians began their current uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a prematurely old Palestinian guerrilla – unshaven, his combat jacket frayed at the sleeves – sat in a breeze-block office in the slums of a North Lebanese refugee camp and told me why he knew he would return to the land which he still called Palestine. The rain had been guttering down into the filth and mud of the streets of Nahr el-Bared all day and I recall that as this ageing functionary of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine went on and on, a thin tide began to edge its way under the wooden door of the hut.

How could he ever convince himself that he would return, I kept asking? Did he not realise that the winding country roads about which he spoke from the recesses of his memory were now six-lane highways, that the village of Deir Yassin – where Menachem Begin’s Irgun massacred the Palestinian inhabitants in 1948 – was now a mere suburb of Jerusalem, a place of apartment blocks and car repair shops? Was he unaware that the olive groves of which he spoke so emotionally had in some cases disappeared, that the bare hilltops were now sporting Jewish settlements? What could he do to arrest these things, sitting here in this drafty hut so many miles from ‘Palestine’?

The bare light-bulb swung back and forth in the gale. And the unshaven warrior actually stood up in a vain attempt to push back the tide of water creeping beneath the door with his old army boot. ‘The Crusades,’ he replied. ‘The Crusades. Have you not read about them? Did not Sala’adin push out the foreigner who took his land and his holy places? Did this not take time?’ It was a surreal moment. Here was this ghostly fighter in this little slum – even his rifle, hanging on a peg on the wall, was dirty – calling up the epic history of the land to plug the breach in his own broken defences. Could anything have been more removed from the decisiveness of history than this far corner of Lebanon from which he would, within three years, be driven even further away?

Eight years later, in the Deheisha refugee camp on the occupied West Bank, David Grossman experienced a faintly similar phenomenon. He was listening to an old Palestinian woman remembering her past, in the village of Ain Azrab, baking bread over a straw fire, the woman all the time unconsciously working her fingers through the motion of kneading. Grossman clearly understood what he was seeing and hearing:

Everything happens elsewhere. Not now. In another place. In a splendid past or a longed-for future. The thing most present here is absence. Somehow one senses that people here have turned themselves voluntarily into doubles of the real people who once were, in another place. Into people who hold in their hands only one real asset: the ability to wait. And I, as a Jew, can understand that well.

The waiting, of course, now appears to be over, at least while the current uprising lasts. But over the years, there have been few enough Israelis who have understood what this means – which is why David Grossman’s book is so important. ‘The Palestinians, as is well-known, are making use of the ancient Jewish strategy of exile and have removed themselves from history,’ he writes. ‘They close their eyes against harsh reality, and stubbornly clamping down their eyelids, they fabricate their Promised Land.’

I am not quite certain that ‘fabrication’ is the right word. There are certainly Palestinian intellectuals who fear that it is. ‘What am I supposed to do if I go “home”?’ a Palestinian academic once asked me in Beirut (he was murdered some two years later, shot to death in the kitchen of his home). ‘I don’t know if my house is still there. What happens to the people who live in it now? Maybe they are Arabs. Am I supposed to live under an olive tree and go on dreaming?’ Others – including members of the Palestine National Council, the so-called Palestinian ‘parliament-in-exile’ – have questioned the more fanciful rhetoric of Yassir Arafat. A Palestinian with American nationality complained to me in Beirut about what he took to be the false ‘message’ of exile.

‘I went to one of Arafat’s meetings,’ he said. ‘He talked about the new “independent democratic Palestine” which he said we would have and when I asked him what it would be like, he said: “I cannot answer that – it will be the home of our children. You must ask every one of these children (here he pointed to a row of tiny tots) and ask them what they want.” There was rapturous applause. But what on earth was he talking about? Did Arafat really want us to ask an infants’ school what our future would be like?’

When one reads Grossman’s short but beautifully written book, however, one realises at once that this extraordinary unreality invests not just the Palestinians who live outside ‘Palestine’ – a homeland which many tens of thousands of them are too young ever to have known – but the Jewish settlers who have actually moved into the West Bank. Here the rhetoric operates in an obverse, obtuse way. When Yoel Ben-Nun tells Grossman, in the West Bank, ‘the Jordan River is not the border of Greater Israel but flows down its centre,’ one feels the same sense of disconnection. Yet, as Grossman points out, ‘once, the talk and writing about Jews returning to Beit-El and Hebron ... seemed daydreams disconnected from reality. Since then we have all learned, the hard way, that in Israel’s special climate we must give serious attention to the vision of such people and their supporters. They, after all, see the Bible as an operational order.’

Unfortunately, this flawed religious idealism has coincided in the Middle East – and possibly in the West Bank itself – with an even more powerful form of fundamentalism that sees the teachings of the Koran as an operational order. The Israeli Army have already learned to their cost what this means in Southern Lebanon. They are slowly finding out on the West Bank and in Gaza.

Grossman’s book was written before the Palestinian uprising really began and before the West was able to witness on television how the Israeli Army, supposedly dedicated to purity of arms, has been treating its opponents in the occupied territories. It is interesting to recall how the most detailed reports on the Israeli Army’s brutality in Lebanon would once bring forth abuse and allegations of anti-semitism upon the luckless heads of reporters who in all truthfulness reported them: now we can watch it all repeated on film and the accusers have suddenly become silent. The Israel Defence Force, it seems, is in some ways like the Syrians, the Jordanians or the Egyptians – it is just another Middle East army. But Grossman was perceptive enough to realise how the experience of occupation was damaging the ethics not just of the Army or the settlers but the State itself. As he himself writes in a memorable passage: ‘Like so many others, I began to think of that kidney-shaped expanse of land, the West Bank, as an organ transplanted into my body against my wishes, and about which soon, when I had time, I would come to some sort of conclusion and decision. Of course, that transplanted organ continued to produce antibodies in my consciousness.’ Grossman knew ‘how to declaim the familiar words meant to satisfy old sphinxes: it cannot go on this way, the occupation corrupts us, we have created a system of masters and slaves, and so on. But the furnace which forged those words went out and cooled long ago, and I did not want to feel it.’

This wilful disregard is not new. At a conference near Oxford last year at which diplomats, journalists and academics from, or involved in, the Middle East met to discuss the problems of the region, there was repeated reference to ‘the demographic time-bomb’. This, in the lexicon of Israeli fear, is the increasing birth rate of the Arabs in the occupied territories – and in Israel proper – which threatens in the course of time to produce an Arab majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Delegates at that conference tried to explain that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank themselves constituted a demographic time-bomb every bit as explosive in its consequences as the Arab birth rate. To no avail. Israeli academics would only dwell on the former. Even David Grossman is not immune to its power. ‘In another 13 years there will be two million Arabs under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 2010 their number will equal ours.’

Yet the real threat lies, surely, in the issue of self-identity and the degree of comprehension – not sympathy but human awareness – of one’s opponents. When Grossman speaks to a settler from Gush Emunim, he finds it hard to understand her: she talks ‘with pain of the sufferings of Israeli Arabs, on whom we have forced Israeli citizenship, saying, “And I can justify every one of them who joins the PLO,” but cannot feel the same emotion with regard to the Arabs of next-door Ain Yabrud, to whom she herself is a thorn in the side; it is difficult for me to grasp the declaration that “we hire no Arab labourers,” but when I ask who built their houses, Shalmai, a sensitive and wise man, answers: “I don’t know, little dwarves came one night and built them.” ’

If there is any one word which, just now, constitutes a unique testing ground of sensitivity and political understanding, even impartiality, it is the word ‘terrorist’. Grossman understands something of this. When he ruminates on the education of Jewish children in the settlements – where attacks against Arab mayors had met in some cases with approval – he reflects that ‘the children – five and ten years old – listen, and are meant, it seems, to patch together some sort of philosophy and system of moral values in which one attempted murder is acceptable and another is not.’ Again, when he travels to the scene of a murder – the burning to death of a woman settler by a Molotov cocktail thrown by a Palestinian – Grossman suspects that in the eyes of his friends, the murderer will ‘be a hero. A freedom fighter. The situation is a mint casting human coins with opposite legends imprinted on their two sides. But the contradicting legends do not change the fact that between them – freedom fighter or terrorist; ours or theirs – can be found the dark, hidden raw material: a murderer.’

So far, so good. But – and it is a tribute to the awful power of the word – even Grossman cannot detach himself from talking about ‘terrorists’. He is not, of course, alone: ‘terrorist’ is used by many Israeli politicians and soldiers as a punctuation mark without which no sentence, no statement about Arab-Israeli relations can be complete. Newspapers and television stations around the world all conspire to use the same frame of reference, although with careful deletions when the culprits are supposed to be respectable. Thus the murder of Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border was carried out by ‘Palestinian terrorists’, while the murder of the PLO deputy leader Abu Jihad was ‘a brilliantly co-ordinated commando raid’ by Israel. The Associated Press news agency often talks of ‘terrorist’ acts in Israel or the West Bank although the word is never applied to Israel’s murderous militia friends in Lebanon. Why, for example, were the culprits behind the Sabra and Chatila massacres of 1982 – surely the numerically largest and fastest act of terrorism in the Middle East this decade – never, in Israel or the West, described as ‘terrorists’? Why does the AP refer to Arab ‘terrorists’ but rarely, if ever, to Irish ‘terrorists’? Because there is a large Irish-American readership which might object, perhaps? Why does the BBC refer always to Basque ‘terrorists’ but rarely if ever to ANC ‘terrorists’ in South Africa? Because the BBC, in its wisdom, disapproves of ETA’s objectives but feels queasy about condemning those who violently oppose the Apartheid regime?

Truly, the use of the word ‘terrorist’ has become the journalist’s own ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy, the instant storm-warning of his newspaper’s sympathy and direction. There is, in fact, nothing intrinsically wrong with the word – providing it is used impartially about all sides to a dispute, when they use murder as a weapon, either directly or through their proxies. Grossman, alas, cannot quite deal with this problem. He does talk of the Jewish group which booby-trapped the cars of West Bank mayors as members of ‘the terrorist Jewish underground’: but here there is that ameliorating word ‘underground’, reminiscent of, say, the French underground, which was a legitimate opponent of Nazism in Europe.

There are no references to the Palestinian ‘underground’. At the Allenby Bridge, Grossman talks of how ‘terrorists manage to smuggle weapons into the area’; he refers to ‘a terrorist cell’ in a West Bank village; he describes Israeli troops using village mukhtars to guide them to the homes of ‘terrorist suspects’. He tells of how a young Palestinian joined ‘a particularly deadly gang of terrorists’ which had murdered a Jew in Ramallah. And then, when he talks to the father of this young Palestinian – who had participated in the horrifying murder of two Jewish couples – he hears how the old man was arrested by the Israeli Army, beaten, kicked in the testicles, spat at and otherwise humiliated after being forced to watch the destruction of his home. The old man’s name is Mohamed Al-Kalilah, and Grossman says that ‘one’s heart does not go out to Mohamed Al-Kalilah, who raised such a son.’ But surely it should, for Mr Al-Kalilah was not the guilty party. He had told Grossman that he and his son – a terrorist indeed if the term is to be applied to all – did not get on. No innocent man should be treated in the way that this old man was. And yet Grossman’s sympathy fails. He himself, one half-suspects, is a victim of the occupation which he believes to be so corrupting. If old men are treated as Mr Al-Kalilah says he was treated, is it any surprise that a relative or a friend or just another Palestinian will commit murder, even against obvious innocents?

It is significant that when Grossman attempts to define this corrupting influence, he turns ultimately to fiction – to a short story about an Israeli Shin Bet official in a Palestinian village, a parable of self-questioning that stands quite apart from the rest of the text. The issue is ultimately expressed by a Palestinian lawyer who is himself quoting an Israeli professor. After 1967, the Israeli had said that it would be impossible to be occupiers and remain moral. ‘Even people with moral intentions are led slowly into an immoral situation,’ says the Palestinian. ‘The situation turns into a sort of monster with a life of its own, which can no longer be controlled. An unjust and immoral monster ... You see, you can’t treat people in a certain way for years and not expect that they will react to it, right?’