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An Exchange on the Palestinians

In response to:

Do Israel's Arabs Have a Future? from the February 19, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Although Bernard Avishai writes that my book “is worth reading,” he seems anxious to persuade your readers that The Palestinians is a celebration of PLO terrorism [NYR, February 19]. His “evidence” for this charge is secured by omission and distortion laced with innuendo.

He observes that The Palestinians contains twenty-two large photographs “of boys and young men in uniform or brandishing weapons.” It so happens that there are no more than fifteen such photos in a book which contains—as Avishai carefully avoids recording—no less than 125 photographs. I would have thought that my attitude to these photographs was made quite clear in the very opening words of the Introduction to The Palestinians when I refer to the cover photograph (which shows a young Palestinian cradling a gun, sitting at the feet of his grandfather) with the words “Some Palestinians will find the image on the cover of this book heroic. I find it tragic.”

Avishai then demonstrates my alleged callousness by referring to the fact that the newborn Palestinians in Lebanon are called “babies for Fatah.” However he fails to mention that these are not my words, but those used by the Director of the Palestinian Red Crescent. It is said, as if in jest, and I comment in the text, “He smiles at the joke.” In the context—a description of a hospital which is not infrequently filled with the human carnage of war—it is evident (except apparently to the perverse) that the chilling phrase “babies for Fatah” is but one of the terrible consequences of the Middle East conflict.

To complete his case against me, Avishai refers to the execution (on the orders of Arafat) of a Palestinian hero of the civil war in Lebanon, Ali Salim. Speculating—ludicrously so it happens—as to why I am “become so cynical about civil liberty” he asserts that I defend this execution with the words: “Arafat must preserve his position in the quasi-democratic institution which he leads…” This is a grotesque distortion achieved by lifting a paragraph from another context which referred quite unambiguously to Arafat’s diplomatic and political maneuvers as Chairman of the PLO.

Had Avishai been more scrupulous, he would have observed that in challenging the official version of the execution, I wrote: “There was no trial, no conviction, only execution”; I went on to describe the “reign of terror” to which Arafat’s “security service” subjected the people of Damour where Ali Salim was revered; and I recorded, too, “the anguish” felt by many Palestinians at “the sudden erosion of the moral and political principles upon which they had believed the Resistance to be based.”

Should your readers now feel that there is now some basis for mistrusting your reviewer’s assessment of The Palestinians and its author, they might care to know that I believe, as I wrote in the Introduction, that the territorial dispute at the heart of the Middle East tragedy will be solved only when “both peoples are obliged to recognise that each has an equal but reconcilable claim upon Palestine. The Palestinians is a modest attempt to help promote such an environment by demonstrating what it means when Palestinians say: ‘We are a people.’ ”

I hope that in his forthcoming book on Zionism, Avishai treats the evidence with more care than he was prepared to exercise in the case of The Palestinians.

Jonathan Dimbleby

Bath, Avon

To the Editors:

I recently received a copy of the review by Bernard Avishai of my study, Arab Politics in Palestine, 1917-1939: The Frustration of a Nationalist Movement. Unfortunately, Mr. Avishai completely misinterprets the thesis of the book. My basic argument is that three overriding factors determined the outcome of the nationalist struggle during the mandatory period: the relationship and the balance of force and influence between the Arab nationalist movement and the Jewish immigrants, the strategic requirements of the British government, and the prevailing attitudes in the international community toward colonialism. I also argue that the Palestinian Arabs mounted a serious struggle against the Zionist movement and the British mandatory authorities by means of political protests, diplomatic campaigns, and a lengthy general strike and revolt in the late 1930s. Thus, the cleavages within Palestinian society and the factionalism among the leaders, while certainly serious, were not a sufficient explanation for the frustration of the national movement.

Mr. Avishai may personally view intra-Palestinian rivalries as the key determinant of the Palestinians’ failure, but my book gives him no basis for asserting, inter alia, “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.” If your readers wish to read careful, undistorted interpretations of the book, I would suggest that they turn to the review by Richard Hrair Dekmejian in The American Political Science Review (December, 1980), pages 1139-1141, or the review by Kenneth W. Stain in The Middle East Studies Association Bulletin (December, 1980), pages 45-47.

Ann Mosely Lesch

Cairo, Egypt

To the Editors:

In spite of Mr. Avishai’s serious attempt to come to grips with my book The Palestinians in Israel he failed to appreciate its central thesis.

Nowhere in my study do I attempt, as Avishai claims, to portray “Zionism under the British mandate as colonialism,” in order to stress the continuity and similarity of the Palestinian experience in pre- and post-1948 Palestine. On the contrary, I provided a strong disclaimer to such an interpretation (pages 68 and 195). In my summary I state: “The model of internal colonialism, when applied to the Arabs in Israel, differs from the dual society model applicable to pre-1948 Palestine. As we noted earlier, in the pre-1948 period the Palestinians did not constitute an internally colonized minority.”

This is not to say that the attitudes of the Zionist settlers early this century in Palestine did not reflect a feeling of indifference, superiority, and even contempt for the indigenous Palestinians as attested to by individual biographies, policy statements, and literary works written by the settlers themselves, some of which were reviewed in my book. Nor is this to claim that the dual society which typified pre-1948 Palestine put both groups on an equal footing in terms of social and economic developments. The asymmetrical relationship between the two communities, caused in no small measure by the closure practices of Zionist political, economic, and social institutions to the Arab population, the enormous difference in technological know-how and capital accumulation, and the preferential treatment of imperial Britain, not to mention land dispossession, put the indigenous Palestinians in a disadvantaged position. It is because of these and other factors documented in my book that no serious student of the Palestine issue would be willing to endorse the following statement made by Avishai in his zealous defense of Zionism, and which I reproduce in the book: “Today Arabs and Jews can still be reconciled to one another in a historic Palestine because the intended result of Zionist policies has been substantially achieved and class domination of one people by the other avoided.”

Elia Zureik

Kingston, Canada

Bernard Avishai replies:

I willingly leave it to others to judge whether the photographs accompanying Dimbleby’s “reporting” promote a tragic view of PLO militarism; to decide the exact number of pictures in which men and boys are “fighters” (or wish they were); and more important, to decide whether the remaining scenes are calculated to make fighters seem heroes. In fact, Dimbleby takes the Palestinians’ tragedy to be nothing more than their innocent misfortunes at the hands of the Zionists and “imperialism,” and is an enthusiastic supporter of the PLO’s “armed struggle.” Dimbleby’s idea of reconciling the claims of Jews and Arabs does not appear in his unctuous Introduction, but on his last page where he approvingly (and, no doubt, with a heavy heart) reproduces Yahya Rabah’s call for a Palestinian state to supersede and incorporate “artificial, racist” Israel.

The Director of the Palestinian Red Crescent, whose “babies for Fatah” remark Dimbleby wants us to shrug off as good-natured joking in the face of carnage, is Yasir Arafat’s brother, whom Dimbleby greatly admires. Dimbleby uses the slogan himself in a caption of a picture of a funeral on page 189; some babies for Fatah, he solemnly remarks, grow up to become martyrs for the Revolution. Such attitudes are not just the “terrible consequences” of conflict, but ugly responses to it which bring more terrible consequences.

Finally, Dimbleby is plainly wrong when he claims I’ve pulled his exoneration of Yasir Arafat out of context. The passage I quoted on page 239 comes three paragraphs after his recapitulation of Arafat’s role in Ali Salim’s murder and directly after a connecting statement about Arafat’s occasional trouble with other dissenting “minorities.” Besides, Dimbleby had already summed up the Salim episode with corresponding deference (p. 238): “If Arafat could be autocratic—even sometimes dictatorial—it was because he had been driven into a corner from which there was no other diplomatic escape.” It is typical of Dimbleby’s guile that serious “diplomatic and political” difficulties should seem to him occasions to dispense with democratic principles rather than apply them.

In the light of such reporting as Dimbleby’s, it was not Ann Lesch’s thesis but some of her questions and evidence that were of the greatest interest. I made it clear that she was not sympathetic to Zionist settlers or Mandate governors, and that the latter posed greater “frustrations” to the Palestinians. On the other hand, Lesch might have been grateful for my reluctance to discuss her larger claims, which she restates in her letter, since she has not even tried to prove the ones that are not simple tautologies.

Lesch would concede that there would not likely have been a Palestinian national movement per se if not for the presence of the Zionists and the British, so any study of why this movement was “frustrated” must explore why the Palestinians did not defeat Zionism—or participate in some self-preserving compromise with Zionism—when they had the chances to do both. The “balance of force and influence between the Arab nationalist movement and the Jewish settlers” is of course not a cause of Palestinian frustration but a restatement of the historian’s problem. And we have not solved much of it in acknowledging that “the Arabs mounted a serious struggle” in spite of “the cleavages and factionalism” within. The point, precisely, is that the movement was not strong enough either to win war or make peace, and it is not easy to see why except for those internal divisions.

Little wonder, then, that Lesch’s analysis of the obstructions, motives, and impact of the British government is perfunctory; if anything, her analysis shows why the Arab Higher Committee finally was able to pressure the British to issue the White Paper (which restricted Jewish immigration and land purchase) by 1939. So far as concerns the “attitudes of the international community toward colonialism” Lesch’s book has nothing—literally—to say, apart from a short paragraph in her Introduction which seems mainly intended to preempt the charge that she is just another “Orientalist”: “Colonial powers held that European settlers not only buttressed their rule but also spread enlightened economic practices…” and so forth.

So I’m afraid Lesch’s book is valuable just because she has concentrated so heavily on the politics of the Palestinians themselves. It is no less valuable for having made its best points inadvertently, and I’m sorry if my compliments have proven an embarrassment to her.

Elia Zureik denies having intended readers of his book to view the relations of Jews and Palestinians in Mandate Palestine as “colonialism.” On page 66 (not 68) he in fact states, “Palestinian peasants were not colonized by Zionist settlers in the classic sense of colonialism”; and on page 195 writes, “We would like to provide a disclaimer to the orthodox position…that the Palestinians in pre-1948 were colonized…in the classical [his emphasis] sense of colonialism.” These assertions (more clearly than the one in his letter) were meant to have us distinguish between colonialism in the “classic” sense of foreigners exploiting indigenous labor, and colonialism which more nearly fits, in his view, the “dual society” during the Mandate: i.e.,—and this does appear on page 68—when the Zionists constituted a “settler society” and “shared with other settler regimes features which are sociologically characteristic of the colonial encounter between the settler and other indigenous groups.”

I am not sure what Zureik hopes to gain by manipulating the jargon still further. If he does not now wish to depict Mandate Palestine as a case of colonialism he knows this would be fine with me—though he tried to refute my arguments against such speculation in his book.* What Zureik will not do is revise his larger indictment of the Zionists in Palestine prior to 1948: the one which first presumes the Jews to have intruded on what would have otherwise been “the natural [his emphasis] shift [of Palestinians] from ruralism to urbanism” (page 122) but then goes on to deplore continuous suffocation by Zionist policies of the emerging Palestinian “bourgeoisie”—“commercial, banking, public and personal service sectors.” Both presumptions are supported by demographic figures which do not, at crucial points in his argument (as on page 124) acknowledge the disruptions of the 1948-1949 war. That indictment also leads to the absurd charge that the attitudes of “most” Zionist settlers toward the Palestinians “exhibited a sense of superiority characteristic of white settlers in Africa and elsewhere” (page 154), as if the dual society in Palestine which he correctly distinguishes from “classical” colonialism in Africa existed only by accident.

In short, Zureik will dispense with the epithet but not with the charges it was invented to support. Like Dimbleby—but more understandably—he wants us to view Palestinians as pure victims, explicitly not as agents whose “psychology, culture, value-system, temperament, and so forth” have been essential to their fate (page 82). That is why, I suppose, he continues to view the Zionists’ “technological know-how” and modernist institutions as part of some white settler conspiracy which, as he delicately puts it, “put the indigenous Palestinians in a disadvantaged position,” instead of as a challenge to which the former Palestinian leaders didn’t successfully respond.

Zureik is right that, by their industrial and diplomatic efforts, the Zionists were preeminent in Palestine by 1948. But, as I argued in the Dissent article he quotes, they consciously did not reduce the Palestinians to a dominated class that was incapable of participating in reciprocal political institutions or benefiting from a partition of the land.

  1. *

    Dissent, Spring 1975.

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