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Friends and Enemies

The Palestinians

by Jonathan Dimbleby, photographs by Donald McCullin
Quartet Books, 256 pp., $25.00

Report and Recommendations of an Amnesty International Mission to the Government of the State of Israel, 3-7 June 1979

Amnesty International, 71 pp., $4.95

Arab Politics in Palestine 1917-1939: The Frustration of a National Movement

by Ann Mosely Lesch
Cornell University Press, 245 pp., $19.50

By, “the Palestinians” the British television journalist Jonathan Dimbleby means the hundreds of thousands of people in South Lebanon—what Israelis call “Fatahland”—who are the children of the refugees who fled Palestine in 1948. They are the main body of the national movement whose vanguard is the PLO. Having spent their lives in harsh camps, or working in Gulf states which denied them citizenship, the Palestinians in Lebanon are now men and women who set themselves apart from the rest of the Arab nation as people who have witnessed their own catastrophe. It is Dimbleby’s unreserved sympathy for them that makes his book worth reading. Through interviews and photographs, he presents their history as they see it.

Just when (he tells us) the Turks were repressing the Palestinians’ own first challenge to Ottoman rule during World War I—by ruining their traditional economy and hanging their leaders—the British army marched in. But British politicians only replaced the Ottoman empire with their own duplicitous colonialism. Notwithstanding Sir Henry McMahon’s commitments to the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca in 1915 and early 1916, the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between England and France during 1916 detached Palestine from its cultural and political center in Syria, which the French sought to control. This accord prepared the ground for British administration of Palestine under the League of Nations Mandate which formally endorsed Lord Balfour’s promises to the Zionists in 1920.

The imperialism of some Europeans, Dimbleby continues, thus promoted Zionism in Palestine even as the racism of other Europeans menaced Jews, driving them to Zionism. Nor were the Jews all that grateful for refuge; they barely concealed their ambition to have a state within their ancient borders. They set about dispossessing Palestinian farmers of traditional holdings, only to establish upon them farms and industries which actively discriminated against Palestinian workers. Forced from their land, vulnerable in the cities, the Palestinians thus saw their country bought up, fenced in, transformed, by swelling waves of Jewish immigrants. Peaceful political action was useless while their own desperate use of force brought on British and Zionist terror. The Zionists finally drove them out, harassing Arab families who clung to their land.

Suddenly homeless, reviled by the imperialist West, at war with Israel, the Palestinians were also misused by reactionary Arab regimes, and patronized by UN relief agencies. The writer Yahya Rabah told Dimbleby:

We came to realize that we were nothing without a homeland…. A homeland is not only land and security. It is songs and happiness. When we ate bread or drank water, our first thought was that the bread of our country was better, the water tasted more sweet.

Dimbleby wants readers to share the ideology that most Palestinians derive from this special version of their history. But he does not appreciate what he’s revealed: that the galvanizing force in the lives of the Palestinians of Fatahland, of the PLO leadership, seems to be their political rage, and not the defense of some more distinct cultural tradition, as one finds with, say, the Québecois. The Palestinian nation, according to its current leaders, is not the product of the Palestinians’ particular language, civilization, or religious practices. Rather, Palestinians are Arabs whose Arabic is indistinguishable from that of the Syrians, and who claim to remain pan-Arab nationalists in the tradition of Nasser. Most also profess the faith of Sunni Moslems or Christians, for there are no sects peculiar to Palestine. So their national movement seems to Palestinians in Lebanon a political response—to Zionists who are held to have caused the Palestinians’ recent suffering and to the events which culminated in their “exile.”

As a result of the intensely political origins of their nationalism the Palestinians in this book now seem to take military power to be an end in itself. Salah Tamari, a PLO commander in South Lebanon, offhandedly told Dimbleby that he did not consider himself a human being until he took a gun in his hand. He and the other PLO fighters Dimbleby talked to make it clear that the common identity of Palestinians centers on the political goals and military methods that promote their cause—the “Return,” the destruction of Zionism, the foiling of imperialism. For this reason Palestinian leaders may find it especially difficult to compromise on any part of that cause for the sake of tactical gains, or even peace. What is not clear from The Palestinians is how people like Tamari can consider peace proposals with “Zionists” and still, by their own definitions, think themselves Palestinians. Of course peace would eventually empty the camps and PLO leaders should welcome this. But since, as Tamari puts it, the Palestinians view their struggle as “between two wills, two existences,” won’t the PLO leaders or West Bank politicians who take part in some compromise solution be risking violent opposition from armed radicals who believe in the conventional Palestinian wisdom? (In November, for example, Mohammed Abu-Wardeh, a Palestinian of little influence but one noted for his pro-Egyptian views, was murdered in Gaza.)

Part of that wisdom, one gathers from The Palestinians, is that the Jews are to be viewed as a “religious” community which can be incorporated in some secular Palestinian state. In fact most Israeli Jews see themselves as part of a secular Hebrew culture that has emerged from the Zionist settlement; so Donald McCullin’s pictures of them as orthodox men, praying at the Western Wall in side locks and talesim, seem intentionally misleading. “Religious” rights will not satisfy most Israelis now as they might have satisfied the pious Jews of the Mea Shearim quarter in Jerusalem under the Turks. And portraying the Israelis as a people in the grip of religious obligations obscures the opposition of a great many Israelis to the Begin government’s messianic settlements on the West Bank. Poll after poll reveals that most Israelis favor trading more land for more peace. Dimbleby’s book says nothing about which Palestinians would be willing to take steps toward coexistence. As Tamari succinctly puts it, “If we get that Palestinian state, we will have initiated the decline of the state of Israel. I do not see their leaders permitting such a thing of their own free will. We cannot afford a crack in our unity…. We must fight.”

Still, it may no longer be possible to exclude the PLO from negotiations for a settlement. The Western European governments have already drawn this conclusion. Notwithstanding the preference of most Israeli moderates (such as those in the Labor Party) for some Jordanian administration on the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians under occupation now owe allegiance to Fatah, however different their experiences from the refugees in Lebanon. This sentiment does not testify to Fatah’s diplomatic success. The PLO during the last six months has been dominated by Syrian military power and diplomacy, while the Saudi leaders who largely finance the PLO strongly oppose Assad’s increasing reliance on Soviet aid to defend his regime. Arafat and other Palestinians may now regret his support for Khomeini, and his bloody rivalries with the Iraqi-sponsored ALF within the PLO. King Hussein, moreover, may now reassert his claim—repudiated both by himself and the other Arabs at Rabat in 1974—to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians; and he may do so with the backing of Saddam Hussein of Iraq. But Fatah’s status in Israeli-occupied territory seems undiminished just because the occupation has, after thirteen years, become economically distressing and politically dangerous to West Bank residents, whatever their social class.

The West Bank has been absorbed into Israel’s economy in a manner that has stunted the industrial base of its Palestinian residents: today, 90 percent of West Bank imports originate in Israel.1 Before the October War, Palestinian merchants and thousands of unskilled laborers prospered because they suddenly had access to Israeli markets; the GNP in the occupied territories quadrupled from 1968 to 1973. But Israel’s erratic, inflation-ridden economy since 1973 has been hurting not only businessmen and traders on the West Bank who must use Israeli currency, but also construction workers—now estimated at 75,000—who have no unions, are underpaid, and the first to be laid off during Israel’s recessions.

The more immediate cause for alarm is, however, the continuing flow of Jewish settlers. Those who belong to Gush Emunim, around 14,000 of them, now claim 29 percent of available West Bank land. According to reliable reports in the Israeli press, some of them have been organizing an underground to resist any efforts to move them out. A counter-terrorist organization called TNT (Terror Neged Terror) was reportedly responsible for the bombs that maimed Nablus Mayor Basam Shaka and other West Bank officials in September after Fatah terrorists had attacked and killed Jewish settlers in Hebron. For Palestinians and Jews the West Bank thus remains tense, polarized, and full of risks—fertile ground for pro-PLO sentiment.

The collapsing order on the West Bank makes Amnesty International’s report on Israel’s treatment of people arrested on grounds of security all the more necessary. Here, in AI’s brief, one can find a summary of the tragedy of Israeli society since 1967: the state, as represented by its policemen, soldiers, and legislators, retreating by stages from the democratic standards that most of Israel’s judges, lawyers, and citizens would wish to maintain. A recent Israeli law, for example, which AI could not consider, empowers the minister of the interior to cancel the Israeli citizenship of any person who “illegally” takes residence in an Arab country, or who has performed an act “which constitutes disloyalty to the state.” The law even provides for disenfranchising that person’s minor children.2 As for AI, its most important criticisms concern the practices of Israel’s military police and intelligence services when they detain suspects for questioning—at times up to eighteen days without a warrant—before charges are made. Palestinians have complained they are violently threatened, questioned for hours, sometimes beaten.

AI’s specific recommendations aim to cut down opportunities for such physical abuse or for the other forms of intimidation which Israeli forces are accused of having used to extract confessions from Palestinian suspects. Not that the report is unequivocally damning. AI does not allege that Israel uses systematic torture, or that suspects are killed or maimed—or disappear. Israel’s respected attorney general, Itzhak Zamir, acquits his government, in the report’s appendix, of many of the suspicions that AI representatives have honorably raised. He seems especially convincing where he points to Israel’s good record of cooperation with the Red Cross, which is allowed to visit convicted prisoners, and to the military government’s regular practice of reducing sentences.

Yet one will miss the political significance of the report if one concentrates only on its grim details. The issue is not simply whether Israeli forces are brutal to the Palestinian suspects they arrest but why so many Palestinians have been arrested. The military governor admitted in June 1979 that, during the previous six months, some 1,500 had been taken into custody, 70 percent of whom were between sixteen and twenty-three years of age. We hear about Palestinians fired at in the legs by Israeli soldiers and not about thousands more who have been routinely questioned or simply frightened by Israelis in uniform. Their capacity for organized resistance should be kept in mind when we read of official Israeli reprisals: the closing of Bir Zeit college on the West Bank; the sudden deportation of leaders such as Mayor Fraid Kawasmsh of Hebron and the mayor of Halhoul, Mahanned Milheim; the censoring of AL-Fagr and AL-Shaab, Arab newspapers openly sympathetic to PLO leadership; the banning of art works in Ramallah, 3 and so on.

  1. 1

    Claiborne and Cody, The Washington Post, September 30, 1980; Brian Van Arkadie reports the figure for 1972 as about 60 percent. See Benefits and Burdens (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), p. 79.

  2. 2

    Ha’aretz, July 31, 1980.

  3. 3

    Ma’ariv, September 3, 1980, p. 4.

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