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.’

Nusseibeh’s voice is subdued; he makes no effort to give his story a sense of drama. I try to imagine this slightly-built, middle-aged man sitting before a team of Shin Bet investigators. I ask him if he is frightened by the thought of long-term imprisonment. He says he is not. Prison is a straightforward threat and therefore relatively easy to endure. Much more difficult to deal with are the subtle psychological pressures. ‘These people use a special language – they talk about red lines that must not be crossed. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation they will ask unconnected questions: “Your mother lives alone doesn’t she?” or, “Your wife Lucy is British, don’t you ever worry that she could be mistaken for an Israeli and that somebody might throw a Molotov cocktail at her car?” Always the message is that if I am not very careful I am going to get hurt, not just in terms of imprisonment, but hurt where it really matters.’

For many years Sari Nusseibeh has been one of the most important unofficial spokesmen for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. When statesmen come to Jerusalem for discussions with local ‘Palestinian representatives’ Nusseibeh is invariably present. In the Hebrew press he is often described as ‘one of the paymasters of the intifada’ – a linkman between the activists in the Territories and the external structure of the PLO.

Nusseibeh rejects such labels, seeing them as part of the psychological pressure exerted by the Israeli authorities. When I ask him why the Israelis seem to be so concerned about his activities, he makes no mention of the PLO. ‘The Israelis don’t like my influence on our intifada,’ he tells me, ‘because it is a moderating influence, and an organising influence. The Israelis would much prefer the intifada to be openly violent. I have always tried to emphasise the intifada’s political message, and to give it some kind of co-ordinated strategy.’

I tell Nusseibeh that many Palestinians are describing the present situation as worse than anything they can remember since 1967. The discipline of the intifada appears to have been lost; the toll of Palestinians killed for alleged ‘collaboration’ and other ‘anti-social acts’ has risen beyond 400. Towns and refugee camps throughout the Territories appear to be divided by fear and suspicion. ‘Something has gone wrong,’ he admits. ‘We need a total reappraisal of our methods and our objectives ... In all these years we have failed to create a leadership. Yes, we have leaflets, and instructions, but no leaders, no organisational structure. The result is that people don’t see where the intifada is going. They are getting tired of the burdens it brings. Gradually they are drifting back into the system, paying their taxes, applying for building permits; they are reengaging with the occupying authorities. Nobody knows what they are supposed to be doing: there are youths in the refugee camps wondering whether they should throw a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli soldier, or at a Jewish settler, or maybe even at their next-door neighbour. People need new aims and targets’

For more than an hour Nusseibeh tries to convince me of the possibility of building an alternative ‘Palestinian political entity’ within the Occupied Territories. He enlists the familiar jargon of the ‘liberation struggle’. He talks of ‘a process of disengagement’, and ‘a process of state-building’. But is this, I wonder out loud, the way he will reinvigorate the disaffected youths in the refugee camps of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? Professor Nusseibeh, scion of one of Jerusalem’s most venerable families, is stung by the suggestion that he might be out of touch. The intifada has been, he says, a unifying experience for all Palestinians. The challenge now is to make all of the people – intellectuals, peasant farmers, unemployed youngsters – recognise and take on new responsibilities. ‘I would like to see Arafat sit down with his staff in Tunis and draw up a plan for a Palestinian government, with a Palestinian civil service, with individuals appointed to every post, right down to an assistant officer for primary education in the Nablus district.’

‘If we start building, if we set out to prove we can organise our own lives without the Israelis, then we cannot lose. If the Israelis oppose our alternative government and start putting us in prison, then we regain the political initiative and we send a positive message to the outside world and if they allow us to continue with our programmes, then, fine, we have established our own form of unilateral autonomy. The latest leaflets of the Uprising are calling this “the year of construction”. We wasted the third year by making it “the year of dialogue with the Israelis”. Our task now is to go our own way, to create our own state in stages, and not to worry about Bush and Baker and the peace process.’

Ramallah in the middle of a cold, blustery spring afternoon withdraws into sullen silence. After one o’clock the shops are closed, strike-bound, hidden behind grey metal shutters scarred with graffiti and blots of paint. An old woman dressed in black shuffles past. Streaks of grey hair escape from her tightly-wound scarf, flying like wisps of smoke in the wind. She’s carrying a plastic bag filled with bread; she transfers the weight from one desiccated hand to the other. A couple of men, both Comfortably fat, observe her progress. They stare after her like sheep in a field. One sits in the driver’s seat of an elongated, cream-coloured Mercedes taxi; the other stands on the pavement with his elbow resting on the roof. Both are smoking; the taxi looks as though it has become a permanent fixture; nobody seems to be in a hurry to leave Ramallah.

This was once a prosperous, middle-class town with a reputation as an intellectual and cultural centre. Merchants, businessmen and academies from the nearby Bir Zeit university built substantial concrete villas here. They proclaimed their affluence with elaborate balconies and ornate wrought-iron gates. The more ambitious erected huge television aerials, tens of feet high, crafted to resemble the Eiffel tower. Much of the money that under-pinned Ramallah’s growth came from abroad. Almost every family in the town has at least one relative working overseas, and remittance money has always played a vital role in the local economy.

After forty months of the intifada Ramallah’s economy is desperately sick: transfusions of cash from faraway lands have kept it alive, but the prognosis is grim. Businesses close every afternoon, as they have done since the intifada began. Restaurants remain shut throughout the day. During the Gulf War man residents of the town who worked in East Jerusalem and in Israel proper lost their jobs because of the all-day curfew. With hundreds of thousands of Soviet immigrants now looking for work in Israel, there is little chance that Palestinians from Ramallah – or anywhere else – will again find work with Jewish employers.

Many people are now physically trapped: new restrictions have been imposed on all in habitants of the West Bank wishing to cross into Israel-proper. Such travel is permitted only with a pass issued by the Israeli military authorities. Any West Bankers who have ever been detained on security-related matters, those who have failed to pay their latest tax demands, or have in any way fallen foul of the Israeli Civil Administration are not granted permission to leave the West Bank. Many people who made the daily half-hour journey to East Jerusalem to work in Arabrun businesses before the Gulf War are now unemployed.

Bashir is one such case. He has a ‘Green Card’ as a result of six months’ detention without trial in an Israeli prison in 1990. Now he can’t get a permit to travel to his office in East Jerusalem. ‘After the war the Israelis want to punish us,’ he tells me, ‘they want to make us feel that we lost the war as well as the Iraqis.’

Bashir has invited me to his apartment in a quiet street half a mile from the centre of Ramallah. We sit in a spacious, spartan room. Between a couple of cheap sofas is a low table, on it a plate piled high with baby cucumbers and fruit. Bashir rents this apartment with his brother Taher – an economist – who sits in a metal-framed chair close to the window. Two of Bashir’s friends are sitting side by on one of the sofas. Samir and Iyyad have also been in prison for activities related to the intifada; both have ‘Green Cards’ and both are now unemployed.

These four men have known each other for years – three of them were at university together. Now they spend much of their time smoking, talking, dreaming. Bashir has his eye on a new girl and is mercilessly teased.

‘I fear that the intifada in its present form is breaking the fabric of our society,’ says Bashir. ‘Kids aren’t getting educated any more, there’s a complete breakdown in the authority of teachers and parents. Children as young as eight, nine and ten are joining gangs, running wild – using the intifada as an excuse.’

Iyyad tells me about a man from a village near Ramallah who was strangled by ‘intifada activists’ only days after being released from an Israeli prison. ‘He wasn’t a collaborator, but obviously rumours had been started, the villages are now full of suspicion. The Israelis are very clever at playing this game, spreading false rumours, encouraging people’s fears and maybe even getting involved themselves.’ As a result, says Iyyad, the intifada has become fragmented: internal suspicions are killing the shared sense of national struggle.

I ask about the strikes and the economic pain suffered by the Palestinians in the last forty months. Taher, the economist, answers in Arabic. His answer is translated by his brother. ‘People are beginning to protest about the strikes. Many of them can’t see the point any more – it seems we are hurting ourselves more than the Israelis. Some people are begging to be able to work fulltime – our economic condition has undoubtedly got worse since the Gulf War. Many people lost their jobs because of all the weeks of curfew, farmers couldn’t get out to harvest their crops, and now many people are being forced to live off their savings. When things get as bad as this, it is difficult to think about the intifada: everybody starts to worry about their own problems. This is bad for our political situation; at the begining of the uprising we helped each other out, now we’re starting to become more selfish.’

Samir has been listening patiently to this English translation. When it is finished, he expresses his own doubts about the direction of the Uprising. ‘In its present form the intifada is suicide. At the beginning we had the initiative – we were acting and the Israelis were reacting – but now the position is reversed. We must find new ways of getting under the Israelis’ skin. In my opinion we have to look at new forms of non-violent protest. Why have we failed to challenge the new “pass laws” that they introduced when the Gulf War began? Rather than throwing stones, or observing strike days, why don’t we organise a campaign to undermine these travel restrictions? If we organised a co-ordinated mass protest, day after day, with people travelling into Jerusalem without permits, we could choke the Israeli system. Their courts would be full, their prisons would be full, and we would be making them react on our terms for a change.’

Bashir has been out of the room for the last few minutes; now he returns with a bottle of arak, a jug of water and live small glasses. Baby cucumbers are produced, along with a selection of unripe peaches as hard as cricket balls.

‘I disagree with Samir, this is not the time to change the intifada,’ says Bashir, keen to rejoin the discussion. ‘During the Gulf War we abandoned our policy of doing things for ourselves. We fell back into the habit of relying on others, of believing promises made on our behalf. Now the Israelis are trying to link Saddam’s defeat to the defeat of the intifada. If we abandon the strikes we will be acknowledging our own defeat.’

For the first time in my discussions with Palestinians, I sense a hint of regret for the vociferous support lent to Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. I express this thought to my companions. It brings a heated response from all sides. The identity of the individual speakers gets lost in the clash of voices:

‘We were all supporters of Iraq during the war. But you must understand why: we were not saying that we liked Saddam Hussein as an individual or as ruler of Iraq, but at least this man was prepared to stand up to the Americans and to Israel.’

‘Let me tell you something. When the Americans went to war with Panama a few years ago the people here were all supporting Noriega even though we knew he was a drug-dealer. We cheered for him just because he was against the US.’

‘When the war started and Saddam sent over his Scud missiles it was the first time in our lives that we could see the Israelis wearing our shoes. I’ll tell you honestly, we wanted him to use chemical weapons – even if it had meant that we, here in the West Bank, would have been killed by the clouds of gas, still we would have said to Saddam: “Go ahead, do it.” ’

‘It’s not a secret, we hate Israel; if anything could destroy Israel we would be happy.’

‘I am prepared to live in peace with Israel, to accept a two-state solution. You see, I don’t hate Israel conclusively, and I don’t want to bring up my son to hate Israel.’

They cheer Scud missiles launched in Iraq, but would they applaud the murder of a family of Jewish settlers driving through Ramallah? What, exactly, does their hatred mean?

‘Look,’ says Bashir, ‘we understand reality. Reality is the State of Israel. We may not like it but we cannot change it. I have been in prison, in Ansar Three, where there are thousands of Palestinian political prisoners. Even there the vast majority of people would accept a solution based on compromise – a two-state solution. You talk about the armed struggle? None of us believes in the armed struggle. Again it’s a question of reality. How can you have an armed struggle without arms? Not long ago a Jewish settler was shot a few miles from Ramallah. Nobody knows who did it. Straight afterwards the Israeli Army came and confiscated 850 dunams of land [about 210 acres] from the village next door. But what can we do? Nothing at all. Believe me, the armed struggle is not an issue which we are debating.’

The National Palace hotel in East Jerusalem, just off Salah al-Din Street is hosting a conference on the plight of Palestinians who were away from their homes in the Occupied Territories at the time of the 1967 Israeli census and who have subsequently never been allowed the right of residency with their families in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the gloom of the hotel ballroom, about eighty Palestinian lawyers, journalists and aid officials have gathered to discuss the best means of putting pressure on the Israeli Government to end its implacable opposition to ‘family reunification’. As I walk into the meeting, I am handed an information pack in a plastic folder, complete with stickers and posters showing Palestinian mothers separated from their children by barriers of barbed wire. In his keynote address, the conference chairman reminds his audience that when the Palestinian dream of statehood is finally achieved, campaigns such as this will no longer be necessary. In the meantime, he says, pressure for justice and humanity must be applied wherever possible. Every speech made from the podium is painstakingly translated into English for the benefit of the handful of foreign-aid workers and UN officials at the back of the room. As a break for lunch is announced, I hear somebody talking about ‘workshop sessions’ scheduled for the afternoon.

Every week in East Jerusalem there are conferences, workshops, press-briefings, human rights reports, all of them cataloguing the ‘injustice’ of Israeli occupation. Every day hundreds of Palestinians do battle with the civil and military authorities which run the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – they fight not with stones or guns, but with legal arguments in the military courts, with aid money from the United Nations, and with research grants from overseas institutions. But in 24 years of struggle against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza what have the Palestinians achieved?

Among the faces visible in the hotel conference room I can’t see a single Western journalist. The Jerusalem press corps is otherwise engaged – down at Ben-Gurion Airport to report on the arrival of thousands of Ethiopian Jews about to be ‘reunited’ with the Jewish State. At the beginning of the uprising, Palestinians were convinced that international press coverage of their struggle would help them achieve political independence: such optimism disappeared long ago. Now activists resent the fact that the ‘Palestinian story’ is deemed to be old and tired – only worth reporting when ‘significant’ numbers of Arabs or Jews have been killed in inter-communal violence.

Delegates to the conference have lunch on the roof terrace of the National Palace Hotel. The sun has come out, a light breeze is blowing. Haddassah Hospital and the Hebrew University are shimmering in the afternoon heat on the top of Mount Scopus. I look towards the Old City, over the rooftops of East Jerusalem, but the view towards the Dome of the Rock is spoiled by the shell of an unfinished apartment block which, for years now, has been left to rot on Salah al-Din Street.

‘I really think we could be moving towards another catastrophe like 1948. Already we can see the signs: massive Jewish immigration, confiscation of land all over the Territories – I believe an Israeli attempt to expel us is a real possibility, all the ingredients for something drastic are here.’ My companion is Mona Rishmawi, a Palestinian lawyer from Ramallah. She tells me that she’s leaving her home for Geneva later in the week: she’s been offered a job with the International Organisation of Jurists. I ask her if her departure is a reflection of disillusion and depression with the situation in the Territories. ‘Not at all,’ she tells me. ‘I’m not leaving in that sense; my responsibilities in Geneva will primarily be in the Middle East and I have no intention of abandoning my work here.’ She dismisses my claim that many Palestinians seem to be filled with gloom. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘we are in a very difficult situation with the intifada, but don’t forget, so are the Israelis. Israel is fast becoming the kind of pariah state that South Africa used to be, and the problem for the Israelis is that they have massive economic problems; they can’t afford to be isolated for so long.’

I decide to miss the afternoon session. I leave the hotel and turn left towards the Old City. Already the shops on Salah al-Din have closed for the day. At the end of the street a group of peasant women are waiting for a shared taxi to take them to their West Bank village. The show no interest as an Army jeep drives slowly by, its two tall radio aerials wagging crazily in the breeze. I walk through Herod’s Gate and wander into the Moslem Quarter, along narrow passages of pale stone, past wooden doors shut tight against the high afternoon sun. I can hear children squabbling noisily in an upstairs apartment, a radio is playing pop from Monte Carlo, and further down the street two men from the Israeli telephone company, Bezeq, are hanging a cable from metal brackets screwed into the ancient wall. In front of me is a narrow arched doorway; above it, dozens of tattered black-and-white photographs of a teenage boy have been stuck to the slabs of stone. A middle-aged man with a trim moustache and very short hair calls out to me from the other side of the street. He points to the photographs above the door. ‘This boy Izziddin,’ he says in English, ‘was 17 years old. He was murdered by the Israelis at the Temple Mount. I know his family. Izziddin was a good boy.’

The man comes over, introduces himself, tells me he works for the Waqf – the Islamic Trust which administers the Islamic holy sites in the Old City. The two telephone engineers are now up on their ladders, wielding electric drills. They are making holes in the stone wall for the next set of brackets, dust is flying up in a cloud, giving both men’s dark hair a greyish tinge. ‘The Jews have bought another house further down the street,’ my companion explains, as we listen to the drills scream and growl. ‘It looks as though they’re getting ready to move in.’ A Jewish property agency has made him an offer for his house too. ‘But I will never sell my family’s property ... Yes others have sold to the Jews, but they are traitors and they are making a very serious mistake.’ I ask him if he is wise to bring his family up in such a divided city, with suspicion and violence so close to the surface. He moves closer to me, touches my arm with his hand. ‘Believe me, it will not always be like this,’ he says.