West Bank Story
by Rafik Halabi, translated by Ina Friedman
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book), 304 pp., $12.95
“There are two camps on the West Bank today,” the Bethlehem journalist Jamil Hamad told Rafik Halabi after the Camp David accords were signed: “PLO supporters and PLO members.” In West Bank Story, his chronicle of the relations between Israeli authorities and local Palestinian leaders, Halabi reluctantly arrives at much the same conclusion.
Few observers are in a better position to write about the occupation and its future. Halabi is an Israeli Druse who studied Hebrew literature and Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, and has covered the West Bank for Israel Television since 1974. He kept his job in spite of efforts by General Sharon and other Likud politicians to censor his reports. Those efforts began to succeed after the Begin government appointed Yosef Lapid—a reactionary columnist from the daily Ma’ariv—to direct the Broadcasting Service in 1979. Halabi now expects he will be stopped from reporting on the West Bank and will have to resign. Yet his book shows neither fear nor spite, and few traces of self-congratulation.
What makes his account particularly sad at a time when each passing week Israeli soldiers fire on Palestinians is that it can be read as a history of lost opportunities. During the June 1967 war, some 1.1 million Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli rule. Most of the 750,000 people on the West Bank had become citizens of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, although some had long-standing grievances against King Hussein’s regime. Abdullah, Hussein’s grandfather, forcibly annexed the territory during the 1948 war. In 1949 West Bank lawyers tried to petition the UN peace conference at Rhodes to found a Palestinian state, as was authorized by the Partition Resolution of 1947. The Jordanians shunted them aside. Israel’s Labour government tried and failed to gain international recognition for its post-1949 boundaries. Even Begin publicly dropped his revisionist Zionist ambition to expand the state’s borders to those of ancient Judea so that his Herut party could run with the Liberals as the Gahal bloc in the 1965 elections. If Hussein had decided to stay out of the 1967 war, he might control the West Bank today.
In occupying the West Bank Israel took over an area roughly equal to that of Israel itself without the Negev desert—some 2,270 square miles. Its six small cities—East Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, and Bethlehem—had not been doing well under Jordan. Between 1952 and 1961 the size of East Jerusalem’s population of 60,000 people stayed the same while Amman grew from 108,000 residents to a quarter of a million. Eighty percent of the population of the West Bank lived in 396 villages and 40 percent of the labor force worked in agriculture. They fared no better than the Palestinians in the cities. Hussein preferred to develop the East Bank. When the occupation began, officials counted only sixty-seven tractors in the area. Of the 200,000 …