In Occupied Territory

Stephen Sackur

Sari Nusseibeh, Professor of Philosophy at Bir Zeit University, a leading Palestinian intellectual and political activist, was arrested by Israeli Border Police at his home in the West Bank village of Abu Dis on 29 January. For three months he was held in ‘Administrative Detention’ under Israel’s Emergency Powers law of 1979, accused of spying for Iraq. According to ‘security sources’ quoted in the Hebrew press, Nusseibeh had been providing Iraqi contacts with vital information about the accuracy of Scud missiles fired on Israeli cities. No evidence to support these claims was ever made public. When the Israeli authorities put their evidence against Nusseibeh before the President of the Jerusalem District Court, the Administrative Detention Order was cut from six months to three. Professor Nusseibeh was released from Ramle prison on 28 April.

‘What you have to remember,’ says Nusseibeh, lighting up his first cigarette, ‘is the great expectation and excitement felt by Palestinians before the war began. Many people here chose to believe all of Saddam’s promises.’ He draws mightily on the cigarette and exhales slowly. ‘So when the Allied air attacks began we were watching the TV, waiting to see how the Iraqis would respond. But during that first night there was nothing. No retaliation. The Allies seemed to think that they had destroyed the Iraqi Air force in the first few hours; experts in Israel and America were saying that the war would be over in days. The mood of Palestinians collapsed; we went straight from expectation to demoralisation, all in one night.’

Sari Nusseibeh chooses his words carefully, self-consciously, perhaps even politically, searching for accuracy, but also considering the effect they will have. We are sitting in the exquisite reception room of his mother’s house on the Nablus road in East Jerusalem almost a month after his release from prison. Outside, lorries rumble down the hill to Sheikh Jarah; inside there’s a rich smell of Turkish coffee. The room feels less like a living space than a family museum, with its white, delicately-domed ceiling, a meticulous display of ornaments in silver and gold, antique carpets laid out on the floor, and an imposing framed photograph of Sari’s late father, Anwar Nusseibeh, a Jordanian government minister.

‘This deep depression lasted right through that first day,’ says Nusseibeh; ‘suddenly people were comparing Saddam to Nasser in 1967. There was a rumour that all his missile silos were made of cardboard – that he didn’t have the means to attack the Allies in Saudi Arabia, or to hit Israel. Then the next night we saw lights streaking across the sky. We heard the sirens in Jerusalem and saw the warnings on the television. Saddam had done it, he’d sent over his Scuds; this was a spark which rekindled our faith in the ... (here Nusseibeh pauses, searching for the right phrase) ... You know, in the fact that we are not beaten, that Saddam’s words were not all lies.’

His English wife Lucy comes into the room. Behind her is a smartly dressed man carrying a silver tray. Coffee is served and the man withdraws.

‘A couple of days after the first Scud attacks,’ continues Nusseibeh, ‘I was called by a friend of mine from Tunis, a man who was deported from the West Bank and who ... (another pause) ... has certain contacts with the PLO. He asked me about the mood among the people here. I told him how everybody had been very depressed after the first day of the war, and how the Scuds had given them a new sense of hope. He asked if I would say the same thing to an Iraqi diplomat friend of his. He told me that it would be good to let the Iraqis know that the Scuds had brought such hope to the Palestinians, particularly at a time when Iraq’s cities were being bombed so heavily.’

At this point I interrupt. I ask Nusseibeh if he wasn’t extraordinarily naive to maintain such contacts during the war – didn’t the Israelis have a tap on his phone? Nusseibeh smiles. Yes, he assumed that all his calls were monitored during the war, but no, he didn’t see why this exchange should have particularly angered the authorities. ‘There’s a framework between me and the Israeli authorities,’ he explains. ‘I know that they know about the contacts I have – for them it’s useful information. It’s just like a game: I never say anything of importance on the phone, and they don’t stop me talking. And maybe sometimes they like certain people to have contacts with the PLO – to influence Tunis in a way that they couldn’t object to.’

‘So you did speak to this Iraqi diplomat,’ I say.

‘Well, I got a call from a man who claimed to be the Iraqi ambassador in Tunis, and I told him what I had already told my friend: simply that the Palestinians in the Territories were supporting the Iraqis in their struggle against the Western Allies.’

‘Did you give this man any information about the places where the Scuds had landed?’

‘I told him what I had seen on the television, and what was being reported on the radio: things that he already knew for himself. Don’t forget that from the very beginning of the war we were living under a permanent curfew. The only people we could talk to were our neighbours in Abu Dis. The curfew was lifted for just two or three hours every few days to give people time to go shopping. How could I possibly have inside information about where these missiles were landing? You know, the accusations that I was a spymaster for Saddam Hussein were really quite funny. If you listened to Netanyahu [the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, and chief media spokesman] you would have thought I was up on the hills overlooking Tel Aviv every night of the war, watching the Scuds come down and guiding them in.’

He pauses to drink his coffee; for the last five minutes he’s been fiddling obsessively with his plastic Marlboro lighter; now he has another cigarette. The telephone rings; his wife rushes out into the hall. I hear her speaking in Arabic.

‘Behind everything that happens in Israel and the Occupied Territories are the security services: they’ve called me in three times in the last three years to give me warnings about my activities. They have a thick file on my alleged involvement with the intifada; that was the real reason for the Administrative Order – the allegations about spying for Iraq were simply a cover, a chance to smear my name in the West. You know, they brought me in for another meeting only ten days ago. They told me they could put me behind bars for five, ten or fifteen years, that I should see my three-month detention as just another warning.’

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