Remaining Issues

Robert Fisk

This article by Robert Fisk was commissioned by the ‘New Yorker’, who subsequently declined to publish it on the grounds that it was too ‘polemical’

Selma Tawil brought the fifty-year-old keys into the room, sat down in her corner armchair and let them spill out of her hands onto the floor: heavy store-room keys, rusting cupboard keys, keys shaped like backbones for office safes, car keys for an old British-made Hillman, and one larger steel key with a three-and-a-half inch shaft, gun-metal grey with an elegant knot at one end and a broad, worn blade. Aunty Selma picked this key up in a hand spotted with age. She is 90 now and her facial skin hangs in folds, but her grey hair is pinned back in a neat bun and though her hearing is impaired, her memory is as sharp as it was the day she left Palestine. The key in her hand was the front-door key of her home in Haifa.

She looked at it for a long time in silence as the roar of the Beirut traffic seeped into the little apartment, watched by Samir and Fayez, two of the five nephews who preceded her into Lebanese exile. They have all the family documents to prove that the three-storey house on the corner of Mukhaless and Shabatai Levy streets was theirs, along with the British mandate deeds showing that Jad Tawil – Selma’s brother, Samir and Fayez’s father – bought the house from another Palestinian Arab in 1938. On the top of the deeds is the British coat of arms, a lion and a unicorn on hind legs on either side of a crown, standing on the words Dieu et Man Droit. The same animals rampant are embossed on the front of Aunty Selma’s British mandate passport – No 256959 with the word ‘Palestine’ in gold on the top, issued 12 November 1947 – and inside is a photograph of Selma Tawil just before she left her home for ever, a handsome woman of 34 with large sensitive eyes and thick black hair that falls over her earrings.

An architect’s design of the house shows that Jad Tawil had added the third storey for his brother George in 1947 because George was planning to marry. Aunty Selma lived on the second floor with Jad and his wife Nada and their five boys, including Samir and Fayez. Aunty Esma lived on the ground floor with her husband Andreas. The Tawils were Greek Orthodox Arabs, grain merchants, people of property, Freemasons who knew the local British magistrates and the Haifa Assistant District Commissioner, who had sent their children to the expensive National Evangelical School in Beirut to avoid the growing anarchy in Palestine.

Samir and Fayez have heard the story of the family’s tragedy before, but they let Aunty Selma repeat it to them in the high, unnerving monotone of the deaf as she weighs the key in her right hand. It is a kind of ritual, a purging of the past, the key representing the last physical hope of ever returning to the land that was Palestine and is now Israel. ‘Your Uncle George locked the front door,’ she said. ‘You see, we thought we would only be leaving for fourteen or fifteen days, until the fighting died down. So we took a few clothes with us and left everything else behind. The Jewish forces had surrounded our part of Haifa but there was a ceasefire and we thought it was the last chance to escape the war and reach the Lebanese border at Naqqoura. We thought we could come back when it was over. Your father Jad drove us away in the Hillman and I remember looking back at the house. We didn’t realise then that Haifa had already surrendered to the Jewish forces. We could have stayed.’ Aunty Selma put her hands to her face. Palestinians call this period their ‘catastrophe’. Israeli as well as Palestinian historians now accept that up to 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in what was to become Israel, fearful of being massacred; these refugees and their descendants now number at least three million, 350,000 of whom live in Lebanon, mostly in squalid camps, a few – like Aunty Selma and her nephews – in modest comfort. Those Palestinians who stayed behind were subjected to years of restrictions but are now citizens of Israel. Aunty Selma had cousins who stayed; one became a member of the Israeli Knesset. It makes the tragedy of her own exile all the more painful. ‘We were born in Palestine. We lived there and we should have stayed there. Lebanon is not our land. This is not our home.’

Aunty Selma and her family did not involve themselves in politics – neither in pre-Israel Palestine nor in exile. Their Christian religion separated them from the Palestinian Muslim majority and Samir says his parents were neutral in the Jewish-Arab war. The conflict between the Arab nations who refused to accept the partition of Palestine and the nascent Israeli Army was not their battle. But they were punished for running away because the Israelis would never allow those who fled to return.

So what did Aunty Selma feel when she watched Yassir Arafat shake hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn over a year ago? Her eyebrows arched suddenly. ‘I thought: “Oh God, what a world.” I thought: “Halas, it’s finished, it’s over. Now I will never be able to go back.” What it needs is for the British to make a decision to let us return and we can all go home.’ There is an embarrassed silence in the room at this astonishing statement. Aunty Selma’s memory is so acute that time has stood still for her. Samir leans forward. ‘You have to understand,’ he says, ‘that Aunty Selma still thinks the British are a superpower.’

There are few others in the Middle East who doubt the identity of the superpower which now drives the ‘peace process’, nor the unique nature of its relationship with Israel. But at least Selma Tawil understood the implications of the Declaration of Principles which the PLO signed on 13 September 1993 to the applause of President Clinton and almost the entire Western world. Until then, Yassir Arafat had promised the Tawils and the other Palestinian refugees that they would somehow ‘return’. However unrealistic this pledge may have appeared through the long decades spent in the refugee camps, it remained the focus of their lives and the purpose of their suffering. Driven by this pledge, thousands of young fighters were to die in Jordan in 1970 and in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. The very existence of the PLO was an assurance to these Palestinians that they were not forgotten, that they would somehow be compensated for their tragedy. In all the fetid camps across Lebanon, the refugees – and the growing population of children whom they bore in exile – were encouraged to plan for this ‘return’. Palestinians from Um al-Faraj in northern Galilee were thus settled together in the same street in the Rashidiyeh camp; refugees from Haifa lived in the same alleyways in the Chatila camp.

All this may seem irrelevant today; Western journalists – especially American reporters – now prefer to ignore this vast mass of dispossessed people in favour of the ‘miracle of peace’ which, to our acclaim, Arafat, Rabin, Shimon Peres and now King Hussein are supposedly bringing about. What hope, anyway, did these Palestinians ever have of recovering homes they left almost half a century ago? Israeli historians like Benny Morris, Israeli authors like David Grossman and Amos Oz, have written eloquently of their catastrophe. But in 1950, the Israeli government passed the Absentee Property Law which still forbids Selma Tawil and the other 750,000 Palestinians from ever returning – if they left their homes in what is now Israel before 1 September 1948. Under this law, an ‘absentee’ includes anyone who was ‘a legal owner of any property situated in the area of Israel’ who ‘left his ordinary place of residence in Palestine for a place outside Palestine before 1 September 1948’ and who found himself in countries which were then at war with Israel. The law applies even if the refugees were in no way involved in the conflict. Selma Tawil left Haifa in July 1948, and sought refuge in Lebanon. Lebanon was at war with Israel. So Selma Tawil, her nephews and brothers were effectively dispossessed of their home.

Despite this, Palestinian refugees clung to a largely forgotten UN General Assembly resolution of 1948, No 194, which demanded their ‘return’. Because it was not a Security Council resolution, Israel refused to regard 194 as binding, but it was on this UN demand that the Palestinians based the legitimacy of their struggle to go back to Haifa and Jaffa, to the Galilee and Acre and all the other cities and villages in which they or their parents once lived. Arafat’s Declaration of Principles, however, has abandoned even this legitimacy. Instead, the Palestinians who lost their homes are dismissed in a single word, buried deep in Article Five of the agreement, which states that ‘permanent status negotiations’ – to begin ‘as soon as possible’ – will cover ‘remaining issues: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbours, and other items of common interest’. Squeezed between Jerusalem and Jewish settlements, the ‘refugees’ are a ‘remaining issue’.

Living in the Middle East but listening to those who support the ‘peace process’, it sometimes seems to me as if America and its allies in the region – Administration spokesmen in Washington, pro-Israeli columnists and television reporters, CNN above all – are participating in a unique form self-delusion. For the ‘peace process’ is being depicted as something mystical, almost holy, a shaft of light in a darkening world that will unite Muslim, Jew and Christian, a transfiguration in which the Arabs suddenly decided through some form of divine intervention that they preferred peace to war.

If this were true, it would certainly provide an alternative to the humiliation of Somalia, the wickedness of Rwanda and the shame which the West must share for Bosnia. But the Arabs were not blessed with some new form of spiritual generosity towards their old enemies. What happened was far more prosaic: the Soviet Union self-destructed and left them helpless. The superpower which survived was the one which supported Israel and which would be in a position to decide the kind of peace that might be made in the Middle East, a peace which – because of its special relationship with one country in the region – was bound to be an American-Israeli peace.

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