Travels in Israel

Gabriel Piterberg

On the road to Qiryat Shemona in northern Israel, on Sunday, 13 August, just before the ceasefire is declared, my mobile phone buzzes incessantly: my mother would just like to know if I think that either Jews or Arabs are worth dying for. Woody Allen’s line about being brought up by a castrating Zionist mother comes to mind. My own was an active Communist as a medical student in Buenos Aires in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and recalls that era somewhat righteously to justify her failure to take part in any similar activity in Israel (‘I have already done my share of trying to make this a better world’). Her politics is normally more than reasonable, but this recent war has played havoc with her judgment. She is not alone.

As I get close to the town, military radio lists a host of northern locations and instructs their inhabitants to make for shelters and safe places, an announcement whose wisdom is confirmed by the heavy sound of explosions. I am just a couple of kilometres south of Qiryat Shemona and keep on going. The blasts get louder the closer I get, but from the car I can’t spot any points of impact or even a column of smoke. At the southern edge of the town, however, the Katyusha shelling seems truly threatening so I pull over at a petrol station which has a sort of open-air shelter where drivers and employees are huddling. This is an ideal site, for it indemnifies me from my mother’s accusation of recklessness, enables me to see what’s going on and doesn’t have the heat or stench of the proper public shelters I will soon get to know. Within minutes the station employees have taught me how to distinguish between ‘the motherfuckers’ rockets’ and ‘our artillery’, whose rough location one can judge after a few minutes. Listening to the fury of our ordnance blasting into Lebanon I think of the chutzpah of Israeli allegations that Hizbullah places fighters and weapons among the civilian population. The clouds of smoke rising from Katyusha impacts seem to be mainly on the mountain above the town. In the shelter, we decide that the targets were probably Manara (a kibbutz) and Margaliot (a moshav).

In the mid-1970s I used to pass through here quite often: part of my military service was spent on Mount Hermon. Qiryat Shemona was a place where one waited apathetically to hitch a ride back to base, or more impatiently, to get a ride home at the start of a longish leave in the hope that one would get there early enough to pick up a date. There was a bus station – it’s still there, where it was – but only losers travelled on public transport. Although I notice a few changes – a new shopping mall, for example – the city remains familiar and just as unattractive as it was then.

Qiryat Shemona was founded in 1950, named after the eight men who died defending Tel Hai against an Arab attack in 1920. (The most famous was Joseph Trumpeldor, whose last words are supposed to have been: ‘Never mind, it is good to die for our country.’) One of the ways the state dealt with the massive immigration from North Africa and the Middle East after the founding of Israel was to move people into places that became known as ‘development towns’. Some have been more successful than others, but there are no boom-towns. A sociological rule of thumb: if a given development town was located in an area of thriving co-operative agricultural settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim), its own ‘development’ would be arrested. Qiryat Shemona could never be described as a success story. To its population of predominantly North African and Middle Eastern Jews have been added, in the last two decades or so, immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In socio-economic terms, it is a weak community, and the fact that it’s the site most heavily targeted by Hizbullah’s Katyushas and other rockets may not be coincidental. Raining missiles on Israel’s deprived communities is intended as a frightening piece of consciousness raising.

My first appointment with the municipality is at the emergency headquarters or ‘war-room’ (the male occupants of these offices tend to prefer the latter designation). Policemen guard the doors to the switchboard and the main meeting room. The ‘threat’ soon becomes clear: raging inhabitants, who have lost their wits and patience, congregate here after each volley of Katyushas. A woman in a nightdress (it is nearly noon) is screaming and gesticulating wildly. She’s had it, she says, with Katyushas, sirens and public shelters stinking of urine; the other day a cat gave birth in the shelter and the aggressive mother was making it impossible for anyone to get inside; in conclusion, she’d like to stick a few Katyushas up the mayor’s arse (my impression is that the poor man is doing the best he can). I am squeezed through the crowd to talk to the municipality spokesman, Doron Shanfer. He treats me to a hard-line racist speech, denouncing Arabs, Muslims, Hizbullah, insisting on the pointlessness of any agreement or ceasefire that might pre-empt the destruction of Hizbullah.

Some information is nonetheless forthcoming. Of 24,000 inhabitants, between seven and nine thousand had stayed put; the rest had gone to central or southern Israel. Three or four thousand more have recently been evacuated by the authorities. My spokesman then cites the fantastic figure of more than 1600 homes destroyed, a brazen exaggeration, it seems to me, unless ‘destroyed’ is run through some strenuous hermeneutics. Of 11 schools, four were hit; sports facilities, playgrounds, a handful of industrial sites and the main shopping mall have also sustained damage. By chance, I learn that unemployment in Qiryat Shemona is much higher than the official 8.5 per cent. My interest catches the spokesman offguard, or so it seems to me. The figure seems likely to rise, he says, regardless of the war.

I decide modestly to emulate the Almighty, and to drive through the city ‘and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18.21). After almost two hours of touring the city, which is not that large, it’s clear to me that talk about physical destruction caused by Hizbullah shelling is a grotesque puff for the rhetoric of reciprocity. It is true that buildings and roads have been hit, and there have been casualties, but even to begin to compare this to the devastation in the south of Lebanon and Beirut under Israeli air force ‘surgical’ bombardment is disgraceful.

What I do see as I go up and down the streets of Qiryat Shemona, between intermittent bursts of Hizbullah fire, is an order of social despair to which the war may have given added poignancy, but which is not, in itself, a result of the war. The people I run into and converse with are clearly unable to leave. They are disoriented and depressed by weeks of scrambling into and out of shelters without much else to do. The two public shelters I go into confirm the comic-strip description of the angry woman at the municipal offices. I see a few people reluctantly leaving their apartments to collect the food that the municipality distributes. Their clothing betrays their bewilderment. They have lost track of whether it’s day or night, whether they’re in the private or the public sphere. Those who have remained are the poorer inhabitants, veteran Mizrahis or relatively recent immigrants. A man from St Petersburg tells me that his wife and granddaughters are in Bat Yam, just south of Jaffa, lodging with acquaintances. (In popular Israeli culture, Bat Yam is the equivalent of Milton Keynes.) He had gone with them, but then decided to return. ‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Are you not from this country?’ he replies.

‘Of course I am,’ I say. ‘But I no longer live here.’

He smiles. ‘So how come you’re asking why I prefer Qiryat Shemona with Katyushas to Bat Yam without?’

It had occurred to me as I drove to Qiryat Shemona to think of what is happening here in terms of a ‘Katrina syndrome’: this was the first war the state had conducted after a vigorous campaign of neo-liberal privatisation and the final dismantling of what had once been a highly interventionist state; Sharon had shrewdly duped Netanyahu into finishing the make-over when Netanyahu was his finance minister; the poor and the Galilee Palestinians would surely be paying the price for the collapse of adequate state institutions and infrastructure, in wartime especially. But each encounter with the social and physical landscape weakened my flirtation with the Katrina analogy. The sheer magnitude of death and destruction on the Gulf Coast compared to northern Galilee made it improper. Then again, Israeli state institutions were not as careless and derelict as their American counterparts. Finally, Israel was making use of the suffering and destruction it was experiencing as a result of a war it had unleashed for propaganda purposes. America derived no PR value from the devastation of New Orleans.

In 1982 I was a reserve officer in the IDF. I took part in the terrible war in Lebanon, to my shame. I was demobilised at the end of the Blitzkrieg, just before the siege of Beirut. My own involvement is reason enough for me to ask why, in the torrent of punditry and analysis occasioned by the present war, no one can be bothered to explain when and how Hizbullah came into existence.

Driving back from the Galilee to Jerusalem one evening, I tune the radio to the news and hear Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Centre announcing that one would have to go back ‘a thousand years’ in order to understand Lebanon’s confessional structure. The literature on the shifting historicity of national, ethnic, religious and other forms of collective belonging is vast, and a scholar nowadays has no justification for assuming that the existence of Shias, Druze and Maronites many centuries ago somehow explains the confessional underpinning of modern Lebanon. It’s clear, for example, from Ussama Makdisi’s The Culture of Sectarianism (2000) that Lebanon’s confessional arrangement is modern, coalescing in the 19th century and completed by French colonial rule in the 20th. A strain of Orientalism compounds our refusal – for political and propaganda reasons – to describe Hizbullah with any accuracy. The behaviour of Muslims, Arabs, and Orientals in general, is the expression of an impermeable essence, dating back many centuries, with the result that only the remote past or the present and very recent past can ever be ‘understood’. A passing acquaintance with Hizbullah’s history, and Israel’s involvement in Lebanon, is a useful antidote to Israeli nostrums about the nature of the Middle East/Islam/ Lebanon/the Palestinians, and the facile characterisations that govern our actions while blinding us to their meaning – as if what Israel does and what the Middle East is were completely unrelated.

Hizbullah is not only a guerrilla force, but a political movement with social and economic capacities, and a parliamentary party.[*] It is not only a Shia phenomenon but very much a Lebanese one. When the confessional logic of modern Lebanon was enshrined in the National Pact of 1943, the Shia community got a raw deal. Whereas the Maronites were given the office of president and the Sunnis that of prime minister, the Shias had to make do with speaker of the house. More significant in the long run, this dispensation didn’t take account of the possibility of demographic change: however much the Shia proportion of the population grew, they would remain under-represented and get a smaller share of state funds. A wave of urbanisation in the 1960s led many Shias to leave their rural communities in the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon, and migrate to Beirut’s poor neighbourhoods. This was a turning point in the sociology of the country.

Politicisation, among the Shias, took the form of support for the Lebanese Communist Party and the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, at least until the 1970s when an able cleric by the name of Sayyid Musa al-Sadr, who would later disappear in Libya, set up the Movement of the Deprived and began to lure the Shia masses away from the left-wing parties. The replacement of the secular left by political Islam has had two depressing consequences: intellectually, it seems to vindicate the Orientalist ‘truth’ that the authentic, timeless affiliation of Muslims is to religion, ethnicity and the tribe, and that anything else is merely a veneer; politically, it makes it easier to consign people to dangerously rigid identities.

One of the tangible results of Musa al-Sadr’s success was the formation of a militia – a sine qua non in Lebanese politics of the period – to go with his movement. It was known as Amal (both an acronym that stands for Detachments of Lebanese Resistance and a noun that means ‘hope’). Another was the rapid ascendancy of two Shia religious leaders, who, like al-Sadr, studied in the holy Shia city of Najaf in Iraq: Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah and Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. The decisive factor in the shift from Hope (Amal) to the Party of God (Hizbullah) was Sharon’s invasion in the summer of 1982, the attendant Battle of Beirut, and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, where roughly a quarter of the refugees were Shias from south Lebanon.

Growing numbers of Shias became disenchanted with Amal in the aftermath of the invasion because it failed to redress their socio-economic hardship or to resist the Israeli occupation. All the emerging Shia groups, whether in Beirut’s poor neighbourhoods, the Bekaa Valley or the south, were religious; all resisted the Israeli occupation, and joined the militia-infested fray. Within less than three years and with Iran’s material support, these groups came together – in February 1985 – to form Hizbullah and its military wing, the Islamic Resistance. The Israeli-Hizbullah relationship has been a dialectical affair. Hizbullah’s existence is unthinkable without Israel’s invasion of 1982; now it is a major obstacle to Israel’s military and policy adventures in Lebanon.

Israel’s attempts to shape Lebanon’s fortunes began many years before Sharon’s war, however. Ben-Gurion’s notion of an alliance of minorities in the Middle East is a useful starting point. This logic assumes a priori shared interests among groups that are not Arab-Sunni Muslim, such as the Kurds – Sunni but not Arab – and the Maronites, who are Arab but not Muslim. The concept of Middle Eastern ‘mosaic states’ is a variation on this theme. In The Tragedy of Lebanon (1983) an unnamed Israeli Arabist explained to the Washington Post journalist Jonathan Randal that

only when Israel raises money from American Jews do we Israelis claim that the entire Arab world is a united juggernaut determined to drive poor little Israel into the sea. In fact, the Middle East is a jigsaw puzzle of peoples and cultures. Minority regimes run Syria and Iraq. King Hussein and his Bedouin are a minority in Jordan, outnumbered by Palestinians. Sudan has a large animist and Christian minority. Algeria and Morocco have large Berber minorities. If Israel could succeed in contacting all these groups which oppose Arabism and Islam, then it could break the Islamic world into pieces.

Aggressive and grandiose Israeli aspirations unilaterally to mould their environment are not new. The instability of the Middle East in the mid-1950s brought the clash between Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister, to a head. In the winter of 1954 Ben-Gurion had retired – temporarily, it turned out – from the premiership, but continued to press for the destabilisation of Lebanon. Tensions between Syria and Iraq were running very high, and sticking to his conviction that times of crisis are opportunities for the bold (as they had been in 1948), Ben-Gurion argued that this was ‘the time to arouse Lebanon – that is to say, the Maronites – to proclaim a Christian state’. He later said:

Maybe (of course nothing is certain in politics) now is the propitious moment to bring about the establishment of a Christian state as our neighbour. Without our initiative and our energetic help it will not come about. And it seems to me that this is now the central task or at least one of the central tasks of our foreign policy, and we should invest means, time and energy and act in all ways likely to bring about a fundamental change in Lebanon. [Eliahu] Sassoon and the rest of our Arabists must be mobilised. If money is needed, dollars should not be spared, even though the money may go down the drain. All our energies must be concentrated here.

More than a year later Ben-Gurion was back as defence minister, as keen as ever to realise what Sharett called ‘his old dream’ of reshaping Lebanon. Now he had the assistance of his young chief of staff Moshe Dayan. According to Sharett’s report of a meeting in May 1955, Dayan felt that the trick was to find a suitable Lebanese officer – a captain would suffice.

We should win his heart or buy him, to get him to agree to declare himself the saviour of the Maronite population. Then the Israeli army would enter Lebanon, occupy the necessary territory and set up a Christian regime allied to Israel and everything would turn up just fine … Ben-Gurion was quick to stress that his own plan is intended to be put into effect only in the wake of Syria’s conquest by Iraq.

The actual Christian army officers who were found and who served as Israel’s buffer policemen in south Lebanon were, first, Major Saad Haddad and his South Lebanon Army, and then General Antoine Lahad. Israel’s arrangements for the North Bank (i.e. south Lebanon from the international border to the Litani River) and later for the West Bank share the same logic: in each case, a proxy polices the locals to satisfy the regional empire’s ‘security needs’. The services rendered by Haddad and Lahad are scarcely different from those that have been expected of Arafat and Abu Mazen since the Oslo process got underway.

Syria became another of Israel’s policy partners when the latter’s involvement in Lebanon began in earnest in 1976. In that year, as the civil war began to get out of hand, Israel and Syria with Washington’s blessing put down their markers. An unwritten agreement known as the Red Lines stipulated Israeli control up to the Litani River and a Syrian force policing much of the rest of the country, but without deploying surface-to-air missiles that might have stood in the way of the Israeli air force. For the rest, in a proper Talmudic spirit, the agreement was largely a matter of interpretation and, as Rabin reportedly told Randal, ‘any interpretation of the tacit understanding is correct.’ The Red Lines held until the summer of 1982. In that time, Israel sought to bring three groups under its wing, and to use them against its enemies in Lebanon – i.e. the Syrians and the Palestinians. These groups were the Shias, the southern Christians and the northern Christians. Among the latter group, the Israelis initially favoured the seasoned politician Camille Chamoun, with whom they had already had contact, and his son Dany, commander of the Tiger militia. Gradually the Mossad preference for Pierre Gemayel and his extreme right-wing Phalangist militia (later to become the Lebanese Forces) prevailed. Pierre Gemayel had been to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and had found the Nazis inspiring; his militia was now being seen as the protector of the Jewish community in Lebanon. Sharon installed Gemayel’s son Bashir as Israel’s puppet president in 1982. After his assassination, he was replaced by his brother Amin. It was the Phalangists who committed the Sabra and Shatila atrocities of September 1982, while the IDF sealed off the camps.

Jerusalem’s German Colony on a blazing August morning. I used to come here in the old days: a cousin of my mother’s lives on Emek Refaim Street, the colony’s main avenue. The neighbourhood was built in the second half of the 19th century, one of several German colonies in Palestine whose European population was increasing as the twin expansion of empire and capital approached its climax. It was designed as a German village, but the architecture and material (local stone) give it an Arab quality. German gentiles and wealthy Arab Jerusalemites used to live here; they were joined by Jews in the 1930s. As in so many neighbourhoods, 1948 put an end to the Arab presence. I used to think of this as one of West Jerusalem’s most attractive districts and I’m struck now by the transformation of its human landscape: it is overwhelmingly dominated by American settlers. They are conspicuous by their appearance and accent (in English and Hebrew). Quite a few of the men, I notice, carry discreet personal firearms. They walk about confidently, with an air of ownership, or perhaps resentment is clouding my ethnography. The relative newcomers are easily distinguished from the older social strata: middle-class European Jews in the more northern section of the colony, and North African and Kurdish as one walks further south into Rachel Imenu Street. The change makes the colony much less desirable as far as I’m concerned, and leads inevitably to dark thoughts about the multi-faceted process of Palestinian dispossession.

Café Masaryk stands at the intersection of Emek Refaim and Masaryk. It is a testimony to the quality of Israeli coffee culture, which Starbucks has never been able to penetrate. I am joined by Amira Hass, the distinguished Haaretz correspondent, whose coverage of the occupation, sparing neither side, is a model of what free and critical media ought to be. The underlying purpose of Israeli policy, from Peres to Sharon, she argues, is to wreck the Palestinian national project, since its success, however peaceful, would undermine the viability of the Jewish state. She was not surprised by Israel’s insincerity in the Oslo process, which it had never envisaged as bilateral – the stratagem was to get the PLO to acquiesce in a unilaterally imposed settlement – though she was surprised by Fatah’s susceptibility, by which I think she means corruption. To play devil’s advocate, I say that, if we put Oslo itself aside, a viably independent Palestinian state ought to make Israel’s existence as a Jewish state more secure. Hass is not impressed: whatever the initial logic inscribed in an agreement of two ethnic states coexisting more or less peacefully, history does not recognise finality. An agreement of that sort would quickly erode Israel’s ability to act unilaterally by producing the conditions for a proper bilateralism, perhaps even equality; there would be talk of federal arrangements and, inside Israel itself, of territorial rather than ethno-religious citizenship as well as universal suffrage, all of which are inimical to the concept, but more important the operation, of the Jewish state. The innate Zionist anxiety about the state continuing to be a Jewish one, and the resolve to establish that in perpetuity, were confirmed by the point on which Barak was most adamant at Camp David in 2000: the absolute and irrevocable finality of whatever was agreed.

There are frightening continuities between Israel’s unilateralism in Lebanon and in the Occupied Territories. Some of them are pointed up in Jean Said Makdisi’s extraordinary war memoir, Beirut Fragments (1990), which I have with me and find I cannot put aside. The book also brings home the continuity between present and past. ‘Always the Israelis announced that they bombed “Palestinian targets”,’ she writes of the 1982 war. In 2006, read ‘Hizbullah infrastructure’. Or that they were eliminating ‘terrorist bases’.

Always there would be terrible anger and bitterness, not only at the raids themselves but at the hypocrisy of the announcements. If the targets were often Palestinian refugee camps, they were as often Lebanese villages; and if some fighters were killed, the majority of the victims in either case were civilians. The pictures in the papers were always the same: babies and old men, Palestinian and Lebanese, lying dead or dying; bits of bodies, shops and cars, houses reduced to unrecognisable rubble.

Then there are the symbolic and anecdotal connections. One is the thick-skinned Israeli resort to music. The keen-eyed Jonathan Randal was in Lebanon at the time of the March 1978 invasion, codenamed by Israel Stone of Wisdom. Returning to the south a few days after an onslaught on Tyre, he ‘ran into an Israeli string quartet playing Mozart in a field for the benefit of the troops. It was as if some Israeli Buñuel were trying to find the equivalent of those USO shows that so delighted American troops in the field in Vietnam. Yet the Israeli troops seemed ill at ease, almost ashamed of the destruction they had wrought.’ Twenty-four years later, in April 2002, the Battle of Jenin was waged as part of a ferocious Israeli re-invasion of the Occupied Territories, chillingly named Defensive Shield. Dozens of Palestinians were killed. As those in the Jenin refugee camp were digging with their fingers in search of survivors and corpses, Israel’s Channel One broadcast its Friday-night variety show Taverna, which mostly consists of Mediterranean music, from a hill overlooking the camp.

That’s bad: this is worse. After the withdrawal from Beirut in 1982, Said Makdisi writes, it emerged that ‘the Israeli soldiers, wherever they had been, had defecated in choice places. On books, furniture, clothes and carpets; on bedroom floors; near toilet seats and in bathtubs; on school desks; and in shop windows, people found the rotting faeces.’ The same phenomenon was amply reported after Defensive Shield, with two additions: this time soldiers defecated in the presence of the people whose homes they had invaded, and, presumably to keep abreast of technology, they defecated on computers too.

I went back to northern Galilee to meet the local kibbutzim administration, known as the Upper Galilee Regional Council, on the southern side of Qiryat Shemona. It is the authority for the Upper Galilee’s 29 kibbutzim (16,500 inhabitants all told). The council’s neat, well-swept yard, dining-hall and emergency headquarters instantly make me think of Gershon Shafir’s masterly study of the kibbutzim’s foundation in Land, Labour and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1882-1914 (1989). Shafir understands the kibbutz in the context of the settler colony, defined initially by the exclusion of the indigenous people from everything to do with the land and, then, by the exclusion of late-coming settler-immigrants. Even now the most significant thing about the kibbutz, its disintegration nothwithstanding, is that there are no Arab members and few Mizrahis.

The contrast between the regional council and Qiryat Shemona’s municipal offices – the two are very close – is so stark that we might as well be talking about different planets. Where the former is clean, relaxed, spacious, well-equipped and properly air-conditioned, I remember the latter as hot, noisy and confused, with the mayor almost besieged in his chamber. What I hear now confirms the artificial barrier between ‘development towns’ and kibbutzim: according to the council’s head, Aharon Valency, and his colleague Yaara Kadosh, around 550 rockets landed within the kibbutzim’s orbit. Thanks to a very efficient infrastructure only 20 per cent of the kibbutzim members have left and most of those were only renting accommodation. One may wonder why it is necessary to have two Katyusha counts, one for the kibbutzim and another for Qiryat Shemona, if this is all one area, and Kadosh and Valency begin to move uneasily in their seats when I ask them to explain. Both officials are aware of political correctness of course and almost say that they can’t say what they’d really like to say. Instead I get vague allusions, which I immediately understand since I share the same cultural references, to social texture, historical ethos, behavioural codes, Zionist values and so forth. This is emphatically about class superiority and a higher national consciousness, neither of which, since the Begin era, dares speak its name. What accounts for their wriggling is Labour’s demise. Labour had dominated the Zionist movement and the state of Israel since the 1930s. But the mass immigration of the 1950s and the delayed response to the trauma of the 1973 war were bound to favour the right. Begin was a populist demagogue. He appealed to his supporters, a crucial portion of whom were Mizrahim – quite a few from development towns like Qiryat Shemona – by telling them how wronged they had been by the haughty millionaires from the kibbutzim with their sumptuous lifestyles and big swimming-pools, and how proud they should be of who they were. Ever since Begin tapped into it, the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi schism has become explosive, and politicians and public officials who flirt with it may not survive the consequences.

Valency concludes with a programmatic speech on the need for national regeneration and a renewal of Zionist values. Kadosh thinks that the war may have a positive consequence: ‘The way we have looked after our community and kept it together will engender a revivial of the kibbutzim and their way of life, and will propel us forwards.’ She goes on to describe the ‘gut-wrenching’ experience of seeing dead animals after Kibbutz Amir’s cowshed had been hit by a Katyusha. ‘I couldn’t bear to look at it again,’ she says.

As I leave the regional council’s war-room I take another look at a quote from Golda Meir pinned up on the noticeboard: ‘We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.’

I spent two exhilarating days travelling in the Palestinian communities of the Galilee with my friend Ilan Pappe. One of the reasons I enjoyed it, despite the grim realities of the place, was made clear to me by something Amira Hass had said in Jerusalem. All Israeli Jews are ‘collaborators’, she’d told me; the question is how ‘we delimit the scope of collaboration’ (she has recently published an editorial along these lines in Haaretz). Of herself, and her own place on the spectrum, she said – or intimated – that she had struggled for the Palestinians under occupation and sympathised with their suffering, but the fellow citizens with whom she truly belonged were the Palestinian Israelis.

I am having an evening coffee on Salman Natur’s balcony in Daliyat al-Karmel, a Druze town south-east of Haifa. His house is two-thirds of the way up a mountain – just the height we were taught to walk at in the army – with the town spread beneath. Natur is an unusual figure: an anti-Zionist Druze. He developed a fondness for al-Ittihad, the Communist Party’s newspaper, when he was 12, as a protest against people who had told him to throw stones at its readers, and eventually became its culture editor. He is now the editor of a quarterly in Ramallah. Natur remarks that out of 41 Israeli civilians killed, 18 were Arabs. Like all my interlocutors, he expresses the complexity and delicacy of the Palestinian Israeli position: ‘Whatever we do or say and however we express it, Israeli Jews will find fault with us.’ Israeli Palestinians support Nasrallah and Hizbullah for standing up to Israel, even if their lives are more directly threatened by Hizbullah’s Katyusha rockets than they are by the Israeli state. Natur believes that the war has strengthened Israeli Palestinians’ sense of themselves as part of the Arab world. It has also further undermined the already low standing in that world of its corrupt and dictatorial regimes. But, belonging as he does to the old left, Natur is deeply frustrated that the ideological basis of the opposition to Israel and the US is ‘Islamic and not secular-progressive’.

On the way to Shaab, a large village deep in the Upper Galilee, I find myself thinking of the Galilee as one of Zionism’s major failures, since the 1948 operations left it substantially uncleansed. Ben-Gurion realised this and in December 1954 said: ‘We must settle not only the south, but also the north. The Negev is empty and desolate; the north is not as desolate, but empty, empty of Jews.’ The state project of Judaising the Galilee began in the 1970s. One of its main results has been the spread of settlements for Jews only called mitzpim (singular mitzpeh, literally ‘lookout’), built on mountain-tops overlooking Arab towns and villages, and designed to prevent them growing normally. Like the settlements in the Occupied Territories, the mitzpim are architecturally obtrusive and their superior infrastructure (e.g. electricity and roads) is immediately evident. Two mitzpim tower over Shaab to the north, and another can be seen further to the east, not far from the city of Karmiel, founded in 1964 after a massive appropriation of land from the Galilee Palestinians.

Asad Ghanim, in whose magnificent house on the hillside we have lunch, teaches political science at Haifa University. The house seemed to have been lost to Ghanim’s grandfather and father, but Ghanim’s tenacity won it back and some of the original stones have been built into the newer edifice. As always with Palestinian Israelis, the sword of demolition for putatively illegal building hovers over it. Ghanim surprises me by confessing that the way south Lebanon was scorched and the attempt at ‘ethnic cleansing’ (his expression) has awakened 1948 anxieties in him. The chauvinist, anti-Arab militancy with which Israel’s society is awash, and the increasing support for Avigdor Liberman (whose party has 11 Knesset seats and advocates the transfer of Israel’s Palestinian citizens), have made him wonder about his status. I am surprised because Ghanim is a generation younger than Salman Natur and was presumably born into the state. I’d heard a similar sentiment the day before from Mary Totry, who also teaches at Haifa University, and I’d thought it was unusual. On reflection I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nothing that the state of Israel has done since 1948 has given its Palestinian citizens reason to take their citizenship for granted.

Ghanim’s house borders the edge of yet another mitzpeh, Yaad, built on the ruins of Miaar in the 1980s, as part of the Judaising of Galilee. Miaar’s inhabitants were expelled in 1948, but the village itself was not destroyed until the 1950s, and a number of ruins were preserved, along with the cemetery. In May 2004 the American-based International Institute for Mediation and Historical Conciliation brought together the current inhabitants of Yaad and the former inhabitants of Miaar for a series of meetings and conversations, which were recorded in a documentary entitled Miaar-Yaad: One Hill, Two Villages. Does Miaar-Yaad offer some solace, is it a source of measured optimism? I really don’t think so, but beggars can’t be choosers.

6 September

[*] Lara Deeb has written about this in Middle East Report, 31 July.