Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon; drawing by David Levine


“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.

Between 1974 and 1978 when the Israeli economy went into recession following the costly war with Egypt and Syria, the West Bank’s rate of growth sharply declined to 5.1 percent and Gaza’s to 4.5 percent. Subsequent recessions hit Arab workers first.

The difficulties of their economic and therefore their social position undermined Kenan and Ja’abri, el-Khatib and Nusseibah; but so did other Israeli policies which, though justified by officials as a response to terrorism and PLO rejectionism, seemed to be more the product of Israeli military and political complacency, at least until the October War in 1973. After the “black” September of 1970—when Hussein killed many Palestinians and drove the PLO leaders and tens of thousands of refugees to south Lebanon—the West Bank remained relatively calm. Two years later the Jordanian regime proposed a federal plan for the territory which Israel turned down, mainly because Hussein insisted that East Jerusalem and the mosques come under his sovereignty. During the October War, the West Bank, again, did not become violent.

Hussein tried once more to initiate negotiations for the territory, hoping for an agreement on disengagement similar to ones that Israel had just made with Egypt and Syria. The new Rabin government showed some interest during the spring of 1974. But Dayan’s heart had been hardened by terrorist attacks such as the one at Maalot, and by the accusations that he had failed to prepare for the 1973 war, which drove him from the Defense Ministry. He led the Knesset in rejecting Hussein’s overture. The extremist settlers’ organization, Gush Emunim, founded the year before, circulated a petition ruling out all negotiations for “Judea and Samaria.” Dayan, along with a majority of members, signed it.

This was a crucial mistake. Later in 1974 the Arab states, in their meeting at Rabat, stripped Hussein of the right to negotiate for the territory, and endorsed the PLO instead as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Arafat triumphantly addressed the UN General Assembly in November. Gush Emunim’s settlements helped to bring about this victory for the PLO; they became, in Halabi’s view, the main impediment to improving relations with the new, more nationalist politicians who emerged on the West Bank, once the old guard of pro-Jordanian leaders like Sheik Ja’abri had been undermined by the decision at Rabat.

By 1976, more than half of the sixtyeight Jewish settlements that are now implanted on the West Bank were already set up. At first they were ramshackle affairs led by religious zealots, like Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who illegally moved his followers to Hebron in 1968. The Meir government eventually rewarded Levinger for his persistence, permitting him and some of his group to establish the Kiryat Arba settlement outside the city. Levinger and other settlers seemed to capture the imaginations of old Labor leaders looking back to the golden age of the Thirties and Forties, when settlements meant security and security made possible the Zionist revolution.

That precedent proved decisive. By the time Meir left office in 1974, many other settlements had sprung up, with and without the government’s approval. Rabin’s foreign minister, Yigal Allon, put forward his own plan for a string of settlements along the Jordan River and around Jerusalem; these were supposed to provide security if and when the rest of the West Bank was returned to Hussein. But Hussein had already refused to be a party to any deal that would not include Jerusalem. Any possible compromise, such as Israel’s sharing Jerusalem as a guaranteed open city with Hussein, was unmentionable in Israel, and might well have been rejected by Hussein anyway. More annexationist settlements followed, such as Kadum and Elon Moreh, which, Halabi explains, were founded by the Gush Emunim in the spaces between the West Bank’s most populous cities.

In the spring of 1976, Shimon Peres, the Israeli defense minister, nevertheless decided to hold on the West Bank the municipal elections that had previously been scheduled under Jordanian law. Since the October War, resistance to the occupation among Palestinian youth had been rising. In 1974, soon after the Bir Zeit College was set up near Ramallah, Peres expelled its president, along with some other of the younger West Bank nationalists. He also stepped up repression of the increasingly influential Arab newpapers al-Fajir and al-Kuds. Now Peres wanted to reassert the authority of the Palestinian old guard, and he assumed that the PLO would boycott the elections as they had all other Israeli initiatives in the past.

He badly miscalculated. Pro-PLO candidates ran for mayor in every major town, and all but one—in Bethlehem, where the pro-Jordanian Elias Freij was reelected—were swept into office. Even Ja’abri was replaced by an old Nasserite rival, Fahed Kawasmeh. The mayor elected in Nablus was Bassam Shaka, a former Syrian Ba’athist, whose views were close to those of the palestinian rejectionists calling for the liquidation of Israel in favor of a “democratic secular state.” This was the position of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorists who carried out the Entebbe hijacking just after the elections.

Halabi believes, however, that taken as a group the mayors represented a new opportunity for Israeli diplomacy. He came to admire Kawasmeh for his humane attitudes, shrewdness, and moderation. Except for Shaka, all the new mayors—Mohammed Milhem in Halhul, Karim Halaf in Ramallah, Ibrahim Tawil in el-Bireh, and Kawasmeh—joined Freij and al-Shawa in Gaza in endorsing a Palestinian state at peace with Israel in spite of their PLO connections.

Halabi argues persuasively that the mayors were close to the PLO but not simply its tools. They appeared to speak as the authoritative voices of the modernizing Arab society which Israeli policy had inadvertently produced; and Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 gave them new importance. In 1978, they formed a National Guidance Committee which, it seemed, might have a useful part in carrying out the transitional “autonomy” plans that were discussed after Sadat’s trip and became serious possibilities at Camp David in September 1978. Since “full autonomy” seemed an obvious bridge to some kind of independent Palestinian entity acceptable to both Israel and Jordan, the mayors seemed a likely group to preside over that transition; an alternative to the Fatah leaders—Arafat and Farouk Kadoumi—with whom it appeared premature, if not impossible, to negotiate.


Those now seem to have been better days. West Bank and Gaza politicians, intellectuals, students, and merchants are now mobilized as never before. The new civilian administration, headed by Professor Menachem Milson, was installed by Sharon last November, a month before the government made its de facto annexation of the Golan Heights. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets this winter to protest when Professor Milson carried out his new policy, previewed in Commentary2 last May, by deposing the pro-PLO mayors of Nablus, Ramallah, and el-Bireh (Shaka, Halaf, and Tawil), and by dissolving the mayors’ National Guidance Committee, which still includes moderates such as Freij and a-Shawa who have stayed apart from the PLO. Milson has also closed down two Arab newspapers and Bir Zeit University, now a center of Palestinian national sentiment. The protests against these measures seemed like eruptions of boiling anger; but then, in April, after a murderous Jewish fanatic attacked the Mosque of Omar, the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were able to organize the most effective general strike since 1936.

At this writing, at least seventeen Palestinians have been killed, some of them while attempting to assault Israeli soldiers or settlers. Eighty have been seriously wounded. No longer will either Israelis or Palestinians be able to explain the violence of Palestinians as isolated acts of ruthlessness or despair. Palestinian youths at rallies have defiantly showed the PLO flag, although it has long been banned. The Israelis have sent paratroops to break up these rallies, and to arrest organized gangs of rock throwers. Jewish vigilantes from Gush Emunim settlements, armed by the government, have fired on Arab students in el-Bireh and some have been warning farmers against building on their own land. A group of students at Bir Zeit University attacked one of Milson’s officials and publicly burned his yarmulke.

Such extreme nationalism and violence are unprecedented, but they will not surprise readers of Halabi’s book. The pro-PLO sentiment that brought the mayors to power has only grown as the Begin government transformed the incoherent policies of the Labor governments into one of outright annexation. Since signing the Camp David accords, the Israeli government has more than quadrupled the number of Jewish settlers—there may now be, Halabi recently estimated, as many as 35,000 of them. Begin’s regime has built huge new military bases, and along with them extensive roads, and electricity and water lines that provide services for civilian settlements and could easily be turned over to civilian administration. Rabbi Levinger now occupies the heart of the Hebron casbah.

A good many other new Jewish settlers are subsidized by low-interest mortgages and funds from Sharon’s Defense Ministry. About one-eighth of the land, some 175,000 acres, has been expropriated by the government as “state” land; but more has been acquired for “security reasons” or by agents acting on behalf of Israeli developers, especially around Jerusalem. The moderate Ramallah lawyer Raja Shihadeh estimates that 30 percent of the land is now in Israeli hands. Moreover, the Jewish settlers, armed as reservists, go out on patrol. Two Palestinian youths who died recently were shot by Jewish settlers, not by soldiers. Many settlers have been organized by Eliakim Ha’etzni, a lawyer from a Jewish settlement near Ramallah, into vigilante groups. There have been detailed charges—but no proof—that other settlers have recklessly engaged in terrorist activity themselves, placing the bombs that maimed Mayor Shaka and Mayor Halaf in June 1980, a month after PLO terrorists killed six Jewish settlers in Hebron.3

Begin’s government has used much harsher collective punishment against incidents of Arab terror than did Dayan. After the attack on Jewish settlers in Hebron in May 1980, Mayor Kawasmeh was finally deported, the whole town was placed under curfew for a month, travel was banned, telephones were cut for forty-five days; all the men were interrogated, and many house-to-house searches led to beatings. Some 1,100 books have been banned, including works on Islam by the French Jewish leftist Maxime Rodinson, although most contain anti-Semitic material.

A ghastly cycle of retribution has set in. Friends of mine who have recently done reserve duty in the West Bank note a sharp rise in aggressiveness among Palestinians. Israeli patrols are increasingly the targets of Molotov cocktails thrown by cocky gangs of children. And Arab death squads have been active against dissident Arabs. Two men who opposed the PLO—Hamdi el-Kadi of Ramallah, Hashem Khuzandar of Gaza—were murdered after expressing support for President Sadat.

Professor Milson claims to be acting against the mayors to prevent the rise of the PLO’s power and its violence. And certainly the PLO’s attacks on other Arabs prefigure a militant and authoritarian style of politics which Halabi, like any thoughtful Israeli, despises. But Milson’s claims seen disingenuous, for they ignore Israeli policies that have undermined West Bank leaders, including some mayors, who now fear they will become PLO victims. The expansion of Jewish settlements, as Halabi argues, soured any opportunities for compromise after the Camp David accords. When, for example, Aziz Shihadeh, the respected Ramallah lawyer, joined Nusseibah, Freij, and a-Shawa in endorsing an autonomy plan that would lead to a Palestinian state, Kawasmeh, at first, would not condemn them.

Halabi’s point is that settlements must be understood as political events and not merely as abstract numbers of Jews to be compared with numbers of Arabs. Ultra-nationalist settlers such as those at Elon Moreh seemed determined to show that Israel would annex the West Bank just at the time Sadat and Carter were asking Palestinians to live through a five-year period of transition. The aim of the Camp David accords was to make security depend not simply on land but on reciprocal acts that would build trust over a considerable period of time. Yet the settlements, and the religious and historical rhetoric of the ministers and movements responsible for them, raised bitter and plausible suspicions that Israel would use the time to grab the land: i.e., would destroy the Palestinian claims to sovereignty over the West Bank by putting as many as 100,000 Jewish extremists in every corner of it. The settlements confirmed a grasping version of Zionism in the minds of young Palestinians. And they continue to do so. The Begin government inaugurated eleven new settlements on April 28, Israel’s Independence Day.

It is true that the Fatah leadership rejected any idea of a transitional period leading to autonomy well before Begin made it clear that the government was willing to put peace with Egypt at risk in a drive to incorporate the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. But this fact will not discredit the PLO in the eyes of the West Bank Arabs today. So Milson now has to administer the territories without any authoritative West Bank leadership favoring, as most of the mayors did, a Palestinian state arrived at through peaceful diplomacy.

The key to Milson’s intention to “root out the PLO from its bases on the West Bank” is nevertheless an accelerated plan to discredit the mayors, at least in the eyes of the rural village people whose leaders once seemed more inclined to a Jordanian solution than a separate state. Milson evidently believes that the people in the rural villages are less radical and more susceptible to control than the more sophisticated and militant urban Palestinians. Since November, he has been organizing an association of village leagues, led by the clan patriarch Mustafa Dudin, who served in the Jordanian government and openly broke with the pro-PLO mayors. Clearly Milson would like to reinvent a leadership composed of men like Sheikh Ja’abri, whom he described in Commentary as “willing to work within the necessities and constraints of reality.” This is not a new idea and, on the face of it, it was not necessarily a bad one. As early as 1969, the Hebrew University professor Shlomo Avineri suggested that Israel try to cultivate an independent Palestinian leadership. But the timing is now sadly wrong. Even if Sharon will permit Milson to encourage a pro-Jordanian leadership—and Sharon will not—Milson will more easily find candidates for the army’s patronage and power than reinvent the world in which Ja’abri wielded his.

Milson has cut off the municipalities from the Saudi funds paid out by a joint Jordanian-PLO committee created after Rabat. He has been giving the village leagues some funds from the defense budget. He has even distributed small arms to Dudin and his followers, who will now need to defend themselves: the PLO assassinated Yusuf alKatib, the head of the much less influential Ramallah Village League last November, and in March it attacked Kamal al-Fataftah of the Tarquimiya League. Dudin has himself been taking the offensive, roughing up opponents such as a dean of Bethlehem University who tried to prevent his men from entering the campus. The Jordanian prime minister, Mudar Badran, has denounced Dudin, and declared that all the leaders who participate in the leagues would be subject to the charge of treason should they fall into the hands of the Jordanian authorities.

Since about 70 percent of the West Bank population remains in the villages, Milson may hope to make some gains nevertheless. But the changes in culture and demographic structure brought about by Israel’s economic policy work against him. About as many villagers today have jobs in Israel proper as farm their land. And Halabi shows that Israeli expropriations of land for Jewish settlement have had their most adverse effects on the villagers—the lands from Rujeib (near Nablus) were used, for example, to build Elon Moreh, those from Tarquimiya (near Hebron) to build Kiryat Arba. The villagers may not be of the modern world, but they know they are in it when they see Jewish settlements enjoying the modern roads, electrification, and water mains they are themselves denied. They are not searching for new effendis.

Milson seems likely to have more success repressing the political leaders in the cities: keeping the pro-PLO mayors under house arrest, deporting security offenders, and, as Abba Eban has charged, creating conditions that will encourage more and more of the educated Palestinians to seek their fortunes in the Gulf states. The Israelis I have talked to believe that Milson does not expect a final defeat for the PLO on the West Bank until the Israelis can deal a serious blow to PLO leaders and their forces in south Lebanon, something Defense Minister Sharon obviously favors. Prime Minister Begin has described practically every anti-Israeli act—including the murder in March of an Israeli diplomat in Paris—as a violation of the cease-fire worked out last year by Philip Habib. Fatah disclaimed this murder; but on April 21, Israeli jets retaliated for it by raiding PLO bases in south Lebanon, killing twenty-three people. Moshe Arens, Begin’s confidant and the new ambassador in Washington, has called a more serious strike against the PLO forces around the Litani River in Lebanon “a matter of time.”

Those forces have meanwhile been organized into the kind of armored battalion that is vulnerable to Israeli air power. And Sharon may have even more ambitious plans: he has lately been insisting, as he has intermittently done since 1973, that Israel cannot hope to solve the Palestinian problem without toppling Hussein in favor of a Palestinian regime willing to take in the exiles and refugees. In any case, Sharon’s evident conflict with Milson on this question gives substance to recent speculation that Milson’s tenure may not last long.

Based in refugee camps, the PLO’s leadership will for its part continue to press for a version of self-determination that still makes irridentist claims on Israel proper. And it seems that those claims are inciting separatist feelings among the Israeli Arabs themselves, especially those in Nazareth, who have been citizens of the state for a generation. On March 30, some 10,000 Israeli Arabs marched to commemorate “Land Day,” when expropriations took place in 1976. Six Arab youths were shot and killed by Israeli police. Here again the Palestinian flag was shown.


Such sentiments among Israeli Arabs make West Bank Story the more valuable as an appeal for tolerance from a unique vantage point. Halabi grew up in the Druse villages of the Carmel Mountains, in a minority Arab community whose eclectic and esoteric faith diverged from Islam in the tenth century. The secret dogmas of the Druse are said to be inspired by the Persian prophet Zoroaster, and by classical Greek philosophers—Pythagoras and Plato—as well as by Asiatic influences predating Islam. So although the Druse are Arabs, they have tended to view with favor Israel’s civil liberties. Israeli Druse intellectuals have learned about modern life in Israel’s Hebrew culture, not unlike the thousands of Jews who came to Israel after 1948 from backward countries such as Yemen. And unlike other Israeli Arabs, the Druse serve in the army, especially in border patrols and antiterror squads.

Halabi is himself a reserve officer in the army, and tells how a Druse acquaintance of his, the demolition expert Suleiman Khirwabi, was blinded dismantling a bomb meant for Ibrahim Tawil—the man whose firing led to the most recent explosion of violence. Halabi is perhaps the only Israeli who can claim relatives in the Ramle prison on both sides of the bars: some are security offenders, some jailers. Since he is regularly threatened by Jewish and Arab fanatics, democratic rights for him are a matter of life and death, not to mention daily work. Perhaps the most memorable moment in his book comes when he describes how his colleagues at the broadcasting service rallied to support him when Sharon began to impugn his patriotism. It is from just such circles of libertarian sentiment and private affection that, in my view, many more Israelis will have to draw political conviction if the country is to survive.

But these are the very circles that are most vulnerable now. The current violence may recede, but the war will remain. One might think that more Israelis would now see the occupation not simply as a prop of “security” or the climax of a “Zionist” saga, but as a continuous series of risks to be compared with those of a Palestinian state. But on the whole, the violence is silencing the voices of moderation, especially in the big circulation dailies Ma’ariv and Yedioth Aharonoth. And the realization that the occupation poses risks is as useful to Milson, Sharon, and Begin as to their critics.

However much they would want to crush the PLO by invading Lebanon, they may not have their way. The Reagan administration has been insisting that they hold back on the northern border. Two former Israeli chiefs of staff, Chaim Bar-Lev and Mordechai Gur (both now in the Labor party), have publicly opposed such an invasion. Begin’s prestige—though not Sharon’s—was damaged by the Sinai settlers who fervently denounced the Camp David accords. So it is not clear that Begin could lead the country to war in Lebanon in the absence of flagrant PLO provocation, which the PLO evidently tried to avoid, even after the air strike of April 21.

Still, Begin now controls events more effectively than his Labor opponents and American allies. On May 9, the Israeli air force launched another attack on PLO bases. This time PLO forces responded by shelling Israeli settlements in the north. As I write, Begin has taken his cabinet into emergency session and pitched battles seem closer than ever.

What most Israelis now plausibly fear is that President Mubarak, having regained the Sinai, will lead Egypt back into the hostile camp of Arab states headed by Saudi Arabia soon after the Sinai has been returned. Secretary Haig has conceded such fears himself. Mubarak can be expected to grow impatient with a peace process that has become a cover for Israeli annexation. Halabi, who always thought that a separate peace with Egypt could not last, emphasized the importance of starting serious negotiations on the Palestinian question before the Sinai evacuation took place. He fears that just those Israelis who wanted to give Camp David a chance will be held up to ridicule by its right-wing opponents as the dupes of duplicitous Arabs. Polls already show that fewer than 10 percent of Israelis are open to more than limited territorial concessions.

The shrinking Israeli peace camp can have little effect in this climate. “Peace Now” held a rally on March 27—its first since the elections last summer—to which only 20,000 people came, although twenty-six members of the Knes-set supported the demonstrators. (In 1978 about 100,000 people took part in a Peace Now demonstration in Tel Aviv.) The prospect now is that Begin’s government will present Israel’s own increasingly militant voters with the choice between war against the PLO—“without end, without reservation,” in the words of Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir—and a PLO state that will seem to most Israelis a Trojan horse for terror. And for Sharon the possibility of such a state must be eliminated soon, since Mubarak will be tempted to embrace the Saudi peace plan if the autonomy talks break down permanently. That plan calls for a PLO-run state within six months, with none of the transitional arrangements likely to allay Israeli apprehensions about PLO terror.

And Begin, sick and increasingly remote, would like to unite the whole land of Israel before he dies—or so it would seem from such gestures as his recent claim that Peace Now demonstrators who carried placards referring to the West Bank as occupied territory should be charged with treason. His recent references to the West Bank as “Western Eretz Israel” have revived the revisionist notion that the “historical land of Israel also included the east bank of the Jordan.”4 General Sharon’s power in the cabinet is growing as Begin’s energy declines, and although Sharon is not a likely successor to the prime minister, few in the Likud dare to challenge (as they did last summer) Sharon’s huge power as minister of defense.

The Labor Party presents no serious alternative to Begin; it remains divided between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, leaders too vain to resign and too cautious to try to reconstitute the majority of Israelis that endorsed Camp David, in spite of their suspicions that autonomy could lead to a Palestinian state.5 Peres has typically been riding the new tide of anti-PLO sentiment, grandly visiting West Bank settlements. When Yossi Sarid, a Knesset member and a leader of the Ometz (“Courage”) peace group in the party, said he was willing in principle to meet with Dr. Issam Sartawi—a PLO moderate who has often endorsed recognition of Israel and an end to terror—Peres repudiated him. Peres has also refused to approve an attack on Lebanon, but he has been avoiding contacts with his fellow members of the Second International—Willie Brandt and President Mitterand—who might themselves provide a bridge to moderates in the PLO. Instead, he has been courting the National Religious Party and the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel in the hopes of rebuilding the fragile coalition that undid Rabin’s government in 1977. For all this, the polls show that Labor would now win five fewer seats than it won last time: better the real Likud than a counterfeit. The left-wing Mapam, for its part, is threatening to leave the Labor alignment. Rabin’s popularity remains much stronger than that of Peres, especially among young and Sephardic voters. Ezer Weizman could gain more such support for a moderate coalition, if, as is rumored, he forms a new political party. But it is the parties of the right that will benefit most from the new tension.

What has been missing in this frightening impasse is a clear policy from the US, which was responsible for the Camp David process in the first place. Instead of pursuing the autonomy negotiations, the Reagan administration has allowed them to fade into obscurity. Instead of addressing the Palestinian issue by exploring the possibilities of Camp David’s shrewd transitional arrangements, the Reagan administration has dismissed the PLO as a species of international terrorism to be crushed like any Soviet surrogate and, at the same time, applauded the Sinai plan that calls for a PLO state within six months. Nor has Reagan pressed Israel to stop its annexationist policies: rather, he continues to maintain that the settlements are not illegal, and he failed to prevent the annexation of the Golan. Finally, instead of calming the war fever by reducing arms sales to all sides, Reagan has been increasing Israeli fears (and Begin’s anti-gentile conceits) by selling advanced warplanes to the Saudis. Some in his administration have been campaigning for such sales in Congress with allusions to the power, presumably unwarranted, of American Jews.

No doubt, Deputy Secretary of State Walter J. Stoessel and Philip Habib will continue to try to keep a lid on hostilities in the weeks to come; but last-minute shuttles are no more of a policy than were Kissinger’s perfunctory visits to Middle Eastern capitals before the October War. Should a war break out in southern Lebanon, Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria cannot be expected to stay out, especially after it has just suppressed the jihad-prone Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian town of Hama, killing thousands in the process. And the war might spread further. Iraqi and Iranian leaders might see a battle in Lebanon as a pretext to end their own. And if the Syrians determine to make a stand against the Israelis and Christian militias in Lebanon, can the Soviets let Assad fail, or let Syrian cities be bombed yet again?

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reports that the European Economic Community is on the verge of endorsing a Palestinian state.6 If Reagan is capable of a coherent policy, he should at least try to work with America’s European allies in pursuit of a comprehensive plan before a new war overtakes the peace that might still be created from the remains of the 1973 war. A good first step might be that the US endorse an amendment to UN Resolution 242 so that Palestinian national rights are not obscured by the vague references to “refugees” which appear in the 1967 document. Professor Whalid Khaladi of Harvard and the American University in Beirut, who is close to the PLO, continues to insist that the Fatah leadership would be prepared to recognize Israel if the PLO were recognized in reciprocal negotiations. According to Khaladi, “Arafat would accept a permanent peace with Israel and stringent transitional arrangements that lead to a Palestinian state.”7 Every nation concerned, including Israel, should be exploring this possibility. If the PLO shows itself willing to accept Resolution 242, then the autonomy talks could still succeed. But even such an Israeli moderate as Meron Benvenisti, the former vice mayor of Jerusalem, now fears that Camp David has been made obsolete by Begin’s annexationist policies. The fate of the West Bank rests with Palestinians who believe that time works against Israel, and Israelis who believe that they can make time work against the Palestinians, Both are right.

—May 12

This Issue

June 10, 1982