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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.

The democratic principles underlying AI’s report in the face of so much mutual hostility are obviously desirable in themselves, but I believe they are also pertinent to peace-making. Not only any Israelis, but leaders in Jordan, as well as Palestinians—families with property and independent intellectuals in the West Bank and Gaza—will want to endorse liberal-democratic institutions, hoping that open elections and impartial judges enforcing civil rights will provide stability for any future settlement. But the principles of democratic life also seem essential as criteria by which Palestinian and Israeli leaders will have to negotiate that settlement. They will have to agree on a partition, and to do so on the assumption that the land and the city of Jerusalem are resources to be used by separate societies. Each group will want to maintain its own majority state but will also have to guarantee within its borders the civil liberties of the other’s national minority. Loose talk about “mutual recognition” and “self-determination” can obscure the fact that, to live with each other, Israelis and Palestinians will also have to be tolerant of each other.

Which is why The Palestinians seems to me a further disappointment. For all of Dimbleby’s professed sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians, he never sees them as complex people capable of divided feelings or unexpected thoughts; the only question seriously posed by the book and its photographs is whether one is for or against the PLO cause. Dimbleby’s most obvious moral simplification is his failure to condemn PLO terror. He does not even try to compare it with that of the Irgun’s former commander, Menachem Begin, whom he dismisses as “terrorism’s philosopher”; that Begin’s old slogans sound close to the statements he quotes by Tamari escapes him. The Palestinians celebrates PLO militarism: twenty-two large photographs in the book are of boys and young men in uniform or brandishing weapons; the newborn are called “babies for Fatah.” By contrast, there are just two pictures of girls and young women in groups—they stand “in silent anticipation” at the edge of a political meeting where “fighters” are seated, or else they are shown wailing over graves.

Dimbleby criticizes the Western nations for closing their doors on Jewish refugees from Hitler; he attacks the Israelis, with justice, for their failure to confront the misery of the Palestinians and to offer to resettle or compensate those in camps. Nowhere, however, does he examine the record of Palestinians or of any Arabs with regard to Jewish refugees, whether before the Final Solution or after. Was, for example, the Evian Conference at which the Western powers refused to raise their Jewish immigration quotas more discreditable than the Cairo Inter-Parliamentary Congress—also held during the fall of 1938, just after Evian—at which Arab leaders friendly to Haj-Amin appealed to Britain to close Palestine completely? Are the material claims of 800,000 Jewish refugees from Islamic countries after 1948 to be disregarded just because these people have not been kept in camps?

Dimbleby’s most ingenuous argument is advanced, paradoxically, to excuse the terror of the PLO not against Israelis but against other Palestinians. When Ali Salim, the leader of the Palestinians resisting both Falangist attacks and the Syrian siege in Beirut, became out-spokenly critical of Arafat’s leadership during those bloody days, the PLO chairman had him executed. Far from being friendly to Israel, Salim thought Arafat too soft, too enmeshed in diplomacy. But Dimbleby defends his execution: “He [Arafat] must preserve his position in the quasi-democratic institution which he leads and ensure that his freedom of tactical manoeuvre is not unduly restricted by minds that are not as free of naïveté as is his own.”

That one of Britain’s “most prominent journalists” could become so cynical about civil liberty seems relevant to his fascination for what he sees as the Palestinian way of life before it was contaminated by the Zionist “invasion”: he admires powerful men who stick to the land, trust in their fathers, breathe clean air. He seems drawn to their “common code of honour…up-held by the ritual of revenge.” This enthusiasm for an idealized virile past prevents Dimbleby from discussing the questions about the history of Arabs and Zionists which Palestinians will have to ask if they look beyond the catastrophic version of history that was put to Dimbleby by PLO spokesmen. To what extent were Zionists responsible for modernizing Palestine—for cities, secularism, technological advance, and egalitarianism? And is the catastrophe of Palestinian history partly the continuing failure of their own intellectuals and political leaders to face these changes constructively? Dimbleby may regret that Zionism was ever invented, but he cannot expect Palestinians who view themselves only as victims to “work out their joint salvation” with Israelis.

The new study of Palestinian politics before World War II by the American scholar Ann Lesch raises just these questions, but for the purpose of showing how Palestinians failed to organize opposition to the Zionists. Lesch has little sympathy for Zionist goals, but her research will be no comfort to advocates of the PLO who ignore how Palestinians themselves helped to frustrate the emergence of an effective national movement in the 1930s.

Lesch gives much attention to the class divisions among Palestinians which thwarted their efforts to speak with one national voice. In fact, the very idea of a Palestinian nation must have seemed fanciful, even subversive to most of the leading Palestinian families in the cities—notably the hamulas, or clans, of the Khaladis, Nashashibis, and Husseinis—who felt secure enough in the Ottoman Empire to serve in its diplomatic corps and central administration. With Ottoman backing, they also controlled their own municipalities, religious institutions, and schools. Lesch could have added that the urban notables, or áyan, had also abused their power to carry out the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, registering large stretches of miri land—land that is state controlled but farmed by peasants—under their own names.4 Such corrupt practices, which were tolerated by the Ottoman authorities, increased their power as rich absentee landlords.

Lesch’s arguments thus put in a new light the long-standing claims of Palestinians that the Turks oppressed them. But similar reservations seem warranted even with regard to the more common charge that they were betrayed by the British. This view has been accepted among supporters of the Palestinian cause since George Antonius published his influential Arab Awakening in 1938. It is true, as the Palestinians claim, that the British secretly annexed Palestine to its empire, although the territory had been promised by McMahon to Emir Hussein, the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca. But Antonius himself argued that, as late as 1920, no specifically Palestinian nationalism had taken shape except in the imaginations of some intellectuals and Christians who were inspired by their teachers in missionary schools before and during World War I. After the war the Palestinian notables were faced with a prospect of Hashemite rule from Damascus, guaranteed by British arms, or the Mandate. No one asked the fellaheen what they preferred.

In fact many of the elite families in Palestine were highly educated and resented the prospect of being ruled by a Bedouin whom they regarded as a desert king; this was Hussein’s son, Feisal, who in 1919 had already made a deal with Weizmann along lines more favorable to the Zionists than those envisioned by Balfour’s declaration. No wonder some urban families, such as the Husseinis, turned to the Syrian nationalists in Damascus who soon forced Feisal to repudiate his cooperation with the Zionists. Other families, such as the Nashashibis, seemed positively drawn to the Mandate.

Lesch shows that this was a time of great political confusion and that the Palestinians and British each, with some cause, saw themselves as betrayed by the other. In fact, all the important Palestinian families turned against the Mandate when its power could not be used for their own private purposes, and the Husseinis were no exception. The pro-Zionist High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, went beyond traditional rules in order to appoint the anti-Zionist leader Haj-Amin al-Husseini as mufti of Jerusalem just after Arab disturbances there in 1920. But in 1922 Haj-Amin, unlike the Nashashibis and others, rejected British proposals for a legislative council in which Jews would have been in the minority, although Weizmann had accepted them. The mufti claimed that by accepting he would only confirm the same illegitimate Mandate authority that had appointed him in 1921.

Nevertheless Lesch demonstrates that the politics of Palestinian nationalism were mainly frustrated by the rivalries among the powerful Palestinian clans, who stirred up peasant fears of Zionism—which was, to most fellahin, the major threat to their proprietary rights in land. Dimbleby, who seems so impressed by the peasants’ style of life before the arrival of the Jews, would find from Lesch’s book that by 1930 the average fellah owed Arab bankers from the leading families a sum roughly equal to an entire year’s revenues, often at a usurious rate of interest—as much as 30 percent. Just such indebtedness led to the many foreclosures that made land available for sale to Zionists. 5 The largest single land purchase by the Jewish National Fund—the one for the Valley of Jezrael in 1920 which, in uprooting over twenty Arab villages, helped touch off the Jaffa riots of 1921—had been concluded only because the Sursoq family in Beirut had been eager to rid itself of insolvent tenants. The great hamulas sincerely opposed Zionism’s atheism, socialist rhetoric, and exclusivist farming of land. They increasingly tried to organize opposition to the Mandate on that account. But it was the British who organized new, easy credit for fellahin during the 1930s.

Lesch also describes the illiteracy of the Palestinian peasants, their primitive technology, and their religious authoritarianism in order to explain why they could not prevail on their own elites and British diplomats to block Jewish immigration and land purchases. That the Palestinians during the 1930s lacked a large, confident, and literate middle class—such as now exists in the West Bank—helps to explain not only the ineffectiveness of Palestinian opposition to the Mandate, but also, ironically, the small number of Palestinians who might have settled for partition in 1938, or when Ben-Gurion offered it in 1946.

Lesch is reluctant to endorse the principle of partition, even in retrospect. She certainly does not approve of the plan of 1937 which would have given the Jews a mini-state—no Jerusalem, no Negev, no western Galilee—and the Palestinians the Hashemite rule they had been denied in 1919. This plan called also for a large Arab minority in the Jewish sector, and there was some British talk about transferring Arabs elsewhere so as to accommodate the Jews expected from Germany and Poland. Were these sufficient reasons for the Palestinians to mount a revolt in order to scuttle the proposals of the British Peel Commission for partition? Lesch seems to think so; but she also shows that whenever compromises were proposed, right up to 1948, the Palestinian national movement came under the domination of fanatic traditionalist groups wholly opposed to all dealings with the Zionists—the Istaqlal organization, for example, and the Husseinis. These silenced, at times violently, the more moderate voices, including members of the Nashashibi clan and some of the merchants of Haifa, who were cautiously advocating negotiations.

Like Dimbleby and the PLO fighters, Lesch considers the Histadrut, the Zionist labor organization, discriminatory and seems to approve of the Palestinians’ defiant attitudes toward it. She is right that the Labor Zionist leaders exploited the vulnerable Arab political economy to establish a foothold in the land. Except for those who joined small Zionist groups like the one called Brit Shalom during the Thirties, they showed little enthusiasm for contact with Arab intellectuals. But Palestinians could not have overcome their difficulties by defeating the Histadrut. On the contrary, because of Labor Zionism’s “movement for Jewish laboring” which kept Jewish industries and collectives from hiring landless Arabs, both groups avoided a colonialist pattern in which Jewish employers would have been seen as exploiting Arab labor.

Certainly the growing numbers of peasants who were becoming part of an Arab proletariat resented Zionist unions for keeping them out of jobs. But Lesch has the advantages of writing in retrospect, as Jewish leaders once had those of foresight. A more liberal Histadrut would have established a society where Jewish settlers found themselves trying to dominate a hostile mass of Arab workers. A pale copy of such colonialism now exists on the West Bank and is a major source of tension. Ben-Gurion, it must be said, was not as much concerned with avoiding colonialist labor relations with the Arabs as with keeping Jews working in Hebrew collectives. But his socialist-Zionist policy nevertheless preserved an Arab economy largely distinct from the Jewish, and the possibility of partitioning the land between two states. It also encouraged the growth of the very class of Palestinian merchants, industrialists, and intellectuals who gradually built up Palestinian nationalism.

Lesch’s closely argued history of the failures of Palestinian nationalism raises the question of how moderate and progressive people in Lebanon or the West Bank can now change that history in spite of the strident position of the PLO leadership, and in the face of the Israeli occupation. Dimbleby deals perfunctorily with the position of Palestinians who seek social progress while coexisting with Israel; he writes instead of Fatah’s modest attempts to establish schools, factories, and hospitals in Lebanon. But such influential Palestinian intellectuals as Whalid Khalidi, now Professor of Political Studies at American University in Beirut, have argued forcefully and openly that political compromise will be indispensable. Khalidi has already advocated what Dimbleby will not: that the PLO recognize Israel and negotiate for a virtually demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. Khalidi now seems an isolated figure. If peace does become a serious possibility how many Palestinians will know what to do with it?

(This is the first of two articles on recent books on the Palestinians.)

  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.

  4. 4

    See Y. Porath’s succinct discussion in The Emergence of the Palestinian Arab National Movement (Frank Cass, London, 1974, and International Scholarly Book Service, Forest Grove, Ore.), p. 11.

  5. 5

    See Said B. Himadeh, ed., The Economic Organization of Palestine (American Press, Beirut, 1938), pp. 496-497. Also, Lesch, p. 69.

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