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The Road to Disaster

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.1 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 people in UN refugee camps, half fled across the Jordan to the East Bank during the six days of fighting in 1967.

But most of the West Bank’s leading urban families and virtually all of its rural clans cooperated with Hussein. Two of the most prominent East Jerusalem Palestinians, Anwar el-Khatib and Anwar Nusseibah, became ministers in the Jordanian government. Sheik Ali Ja’abri, the influential mayor of the more rural, and more pious, town of Hebron, allied himself and his considerable following with Hussein. Only in Nablus, the largest city outside greater Jerusalem, did serious anti-Jordanian feeling emerge. A few months before the June 1967 war Hussein’s forces put down antigovernment protests in the city, killing twenty young demonstrators. The mayor, Hamdi Kenan, was quick to grasp that feelings of Palestinian nationalism might intensify once Israeli tanks moved into the town.

On the Gaza Strip, on the other side of Israel, the 350,000 Palestinian residents, with the highest density of population in the world, were ruled by an Egyptian administration much worse than Jordan’s. Denied Egyptian citizenship, Gaza residents were stateless, and they needed little encouragement to hate the Israelis from Nasser’s officials, who turned a blind eye to raids by fedayeen—Palestinian terrorists—on southern Israeli settlements. In 1964 Nasser helped to set up the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was led from Gaza by Ahmad Shukeiri until Fatah emerged after the June war. (Shukeiri, a fanatical and untalented lawyer from Acre, is now remembered for having threatened to “push the Jews into the sea.”) The 150,000 refugees from Israel in Gaza were much poorer than those in the West Bank, and were treated with contempt by the permanent residents of Gaza City and Khan Yunis. The prominent Gaza families were not inclined to provide political leadership under Nasser’s regime and left to the UN the work of housing and educating the refugees.

Fewer than 20 percent of the Palestinians in Gaza could make a living from the land. Conditions were far better under Hussein on the West Bank, where 50,000 agricultural families farmed about half a million acres. Hussein’s police sharply restricted liberties but judiciously created a civil service for West Bank teachers, postmen, clerks, etc. No doubt the more prosperous West Bank residents resented Hussein’s discrimination: in 1965 the West Bank contributed to Jordan 2.4 million more dinars toward indirect taxes and public services than it got back. But these families nevertheless owned enterprises accounting for 40 percent of Jordanian GNP in industry, banking, and trade. By contrast, Gaza’s industry was as feeble as its agriculture. Twenty percent of family incomes came from welfare payments. However, owing to UN schooling, the rates of literacy among all refugees were high.

So it is not surprising that after the Israelis took over the West Bank Palestinians tended to be peaceful while Gaza was seething with violence. Rafik Halabi was at that time working in the administration of Jerusalem’s mayor Teddy Kollek, and could follow closely what happened in each of the occupied zones. Hamdi Kenan amd Sheik Ja’abri, he recalls, seemed to take the occupation in stride, in spite of Kenan’s submerged Palestinian nationalism and Ja’abri’s Jordanian connections. Both mayors and most of the Jerusalem notables assumed Israeli rule would be temporary until some new arrangements, favorable to their autonomy, could be worked out with Hussein. Moshe Dayan permitted the bridges across the Jordan to remain open. Still, in 1967 alone, Israeli officials conducted some 1,100 trials for various security offenses on the West Bank, and in Gaza there was frequent, bloody violence. In 1970, 106 of its residents were killed, 94 by terrorists and 12 by Israeli forces. Of some 1,200 young people arrested during the disturbances, half confessed to guerrilla activities.

Israeli forces finally regained control of Gaza by cracking down harshly under General Sharon, then commander of the southern front. In 1972, Rashad a-Shawa, a member of Gaza’s most prestigious family, became mayor and he has since used his nonpartisan relations with Jordan, Egypt, and the PLO to provide the competent leadership previously lacking. Moreover, by 1973 about a third of Gaza’s labor force—including many children—were employed on Israel’s farms, ‘factories and construction sites. This contributed to calm but, as Halabi notes, it also led to new kinds of resentment. About 50,000 workers were commuting from the West Bank by this time.

Between June 1967 and September 1970, Israeli authorities had to deal with more than 5,000 attacks and bombings of one kind or another in the occupied territory. What Halabi shows, however, is that leaders such as Dayan allowed those attacks to prevent Israel from forming a coherent policy toward the Palestinians as a whole. In much of West Bank Story, Dayan appears as something like a modern pharoah who, facing a plague of terror, inflicts hardships on his alien subjects, inflames their desire for freedom, and increases the prestige of the radicals among them. (Halabi notes that in 1968 Yasir Arafat was an unlikely guerrilla, criss-crossing the West Bank on a motorcycle while trying to build an underground network of young nationalists.)

Immediately after the 1967 war, the Israeli Knesset annexed East Jerusalem and the army destroyed several Israeli-Arab villages, claiming that their location made them potential threats to the Latrun highway to Jerusalem. The government built new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, displacing Arab residents. Protests from the West Bank leaders and intellectuals were turned aside. When they requested Dayan to allow them to organize their own political parties independent of hostile Arab states he replied, “Not under the Israeli flag.” Under Dayan’s rules, local leaders were expected to help keep order but were severely restricted as a political group, not allowed to travel freely or to hold open political meetings.

Dayan, moreover, set up the policy of collective punishment by which the security forces have routinely destroyed the homes of relatives and neighbors of convicted terrorists. No doubt such punishment intimidated many of the older people but, as Halabi points out, it only stiffened the resistance of those young men drawn to radical politics. By 1968, Hamdi Kenan said openly that were he a young man he would join Fatah; and Fatah denounced the other mayors and leaders for their fecklessness, their ties to the old feudal order.

But Dayan’s policy also undermined the traditional, urban leaders and landlords by promoting quick economic development as a way of quieting Palestinian restlessness. Not only had tens of thousands of peasants and refugees started to work in the Israeli economy by 1973, but the gross product grew by 14.5 percent annually between 1968 and 1973 in the West Bank, and 19.4 percent in Gaza. Agriculture was rapidly being mechanized: the number of tractors had risen from sixty-seven to well over a thousand. The typical peasant was becoming less isolated, more dependent on urban mechanics and merchants. The landscape of his town was becoming dotted with television antennas; his children were seeing doctors—infant mortality was reduced by half—and more of them were attending school.

Halabi observes that between 1967 and 1980 the number of classrooms in the West Bank doubled, from 6,167 to 11,187. The student population rose from 250,000 to 400,000, a change that no doubt had the effect of reinforcing radical politics. In 1967, Halabi recalls, Arab banks were closed and merchant classes began to face Israeli competition. High per capita growth stimulated the integration of the occupied territory into Israel’s economy. Even under Labor governments, by 1977 the West Bank was exporting 91 percent of its commodities to Israel. But there was little capital investment in the West Bank economy itself. If local manufacturing had been encouraged, the old Jerusalem and Nablus middle class might have evolved into an industrial leadership independent of the largesse of the Gulf states and able to deal with Israel’s new entrepreneurs. But the Israeli banks that controlled (and still control) credit refused loans for West Bank industrial ventures by Arabs.

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    Useful supplements to the cursory data supplied by Halabi are Brian Van Arkadie’s Benefits and Burdens (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, 1977); and Judea, Samaria, and Gaza: Views on the Future, edited by Daniel J. Elazar (American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, and London, 1982).

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