Sari Nusseibeh’s chronicle of a life “lived in a broken and violated land” reads at times like an unfinished nineteenth-century novel. In it there are villains and victims, patriots and fools, war and peace, betrayal and corruption, and an inevitable romance. We don’t know how the story will end. The book dramatizes recent history in Palestine as few others have done. It begins forty years ago in 1967, during a war rashly named after the Six Days of Creation. The Israeli army conquers East Jerusalem, the city where Sari Nusseibeh’s family is said to have lived for more than thirteen centuries. Two years later at Oxford he falls in love with another student, Lucy Austin, the tall, strikingly good-looking, fair-haired daughter of the famous Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin. The young lover ponders how he could possibly ask her to follow him to a war-scarred city in one of the most volatile corners of the world, with two major wars in its recent history and Arab leaders worldwide calling for a third. It seems preposterous even to try. He composes a romantic fairy tale instead. It works.

Nusseibeh was a nineteen-year-old philosophy student at the time, the scion of a Palestinian family with vast land holdings, or what was left of them after the wars of 1948 and 1967. The first Nusseibeh was said to have arrived from Arabia with Omar the Great in 638 AD, though the author’s father, a sensible, forward-looking man and a former Jordanian minister of defense, would occasionally quip that they came “from a long line of thieves.” Patrician families in Jerusalem commonly outdid one another with tales about their ancestors. “It was extraordinary how many ‘direct’ descendants of the Prophet lived in Jerusalem in those days,” Nusseibeh observes wryly.1 Sultan Omar made the Nusseibehs hereditary custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Today one of Nusseibeh’s uncles still holds the foot-long key to it; at specific times, he is called upon to ceremoniously lock and unlock the the door.

Born in 1949, Nusseibeh grew up in the Jordanian-controlled part of Jerusalem, then a divided city much like Berlin at the time, in a large house with precious carpets and chandeliers, often filled with people seeking his father’s advice or soliciting his help. The no man’s land between Jordanian East and Israeli West Jerusalem, a grim expanse of mines, ruins, barbed wire, and anti-tank obstacles, ran directly behind the Nusseibehs’ garden wall. The UN-monitored cease-fire was often violated. The young boy could look out across the spires and crosses at the nearby Israeli sector and the massive buildings of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, an armed Israeli enclave at the time. Hebrew voices drifted in with the wind from the other side. He would tune in to Israel radio to hear the Beatles. His parents’ taste in education was ecumenical. Sons were sent to the Anglican St. George’s School in Jerusalem, and later to Rugby in England; daughters went to French Catholic and German evangelical schools.

Jerusalem at that time was little more than two drab provincial outposts still formally at war with each other. Neither sector was any longer the cosmopolitan, or bizarre, place it had been before 1948 under the British mandate, when several nationalities, Jews, Arabs, and Armenians, a dozen religious sects, Weimar Republic intellectuals, exiled kings and their entourages, and high-ranking British, Czech, Polish, and Greek officers had coexisted with one another. West Jerusalem was modern and dull; East Jerusalem, with most of the holy places, breathed history and faith. With worldly parents and so many competing holy places a mere stone’s-throw from one another, within easy walking distance of his house, it is no wonder that Nusseibeh grew up a freethinker. He was well aware that the great Jewish prophets had also walked these same narrow lanes, a fact, he writes, that must have left his own ancestors, newly arrived from the desert almost fourteen centuries ago, in a certain amount of awe. Sultan Omar’s great Dome of the Rock stood on the very spot where the Jewish Temple had once risen.

In the years before the Six-Day War, Palestinian nationalism was ripening. There were frequent demonstrations and clashes with Jordanian soldiers. Relations between Palestinians and Jordanians were tenuous, often edging toward rebellion. Still, when he was in town, King Hussein would drop in for lunch with the Nusseibehs.

Sari’s father, Anwar Nusseibeh, had lost a leg during the first Arab–Israeli war of 1948. He was left with little faith in the ability of the neighboring Arab countries to restore Palestinian rights; to him, their generals were simply “grinning apes.” He was disillusioned with the PLO too. He believed that Israel was a fact and that Palestinians would have to learn to live with it. He knew Yasser Arafat, who on one occasion had been hidden from the Jordanian police at a relative’s house in Amman. Immediately after the Six-Day War, he had sent Arafat a message “to go straight for negotiations with Israel for a two-state solution. And do it now. If you wait, the Israeli position will harden” (my italics). It was a prophetic warning. The PLO ignored the advice.


Anwar Nusseibeh’s first instinct after the Six-Day War was to extend his hand to the Israelis, not obsequiously but as a proud nationalist. He was soon courted by Israeli journalists and liberal politicians. In the fall of 1967, he told me that Jordan would readily make peace with Israel if it withdrew from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Alternatively, a two-state solution with a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank would also be feasible. He was sorry, he said, to see that Israel was reluctant to accept either one. Israel was still vainly looking for a deal with Jordan that would keep East Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank in Israeli hands.

On his first trip back to Jerusalem from Oxford three months after the war, the young Nusseibeh was astonished to find that the Israelis he met were not as fierce or “Wagnerian” as he had been led to expect. Flying in an El-Al plane, with its large Israeli symbols of statehood, seated tightly packed among triumphant young Israelis going home to a state that was suddenly enjoying mythic status, was a little unsettling. But he confesses that “the experience of sitting among Israelis inside an enemy machine and being served by frankly gorgeous Israeli airline hostesses would leave a permanent mark on my approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Upon arrival, he was amazed by the apparent disorderliness of Israeli life and the sloppy clothes people wore: “How could such a badly dressed, ill-mannered people, who couldn’t even stand in line for a cab, defeat all the Arab armies?” Palestinian East Jerusalem seemed to him moribund and uncertain of itself, pretty much as he himself was. His side of the city had been annexed to form Israel’s “eternal” capital. It was not under harsh military rule, as was the occupied West Bank; neither was it fully free like the rest of Israel. Almost overnight East Jerusalem Palestinians found themselves aliens with revocable residence permits in the city where they had been born. His own status as a resident was open to question since he had been absent during the war. The first Palestinian boycotts and protest strikes broke out during his first visit back. He was eager to discover what made Israelis tick. What gave them their dynamic energy? He entered an ulpan, a school for intensive study of Hebrew, and worked for a while as a volunteer on an Israeli archaeological dig. With his father’s encouragement, he spent a month on a kibbutz in the Galilee and was impressed by the high caliber of the people there. The kibbutzniks had a museum and an art collection. They paid little attention to the Palestinians:

We had hardly existed in the minds of these fine people. This absence wasn’t a product of malevolence or ill will. Physically, we simply weren’t part of their world, with most Arabs having been cleared out twenty years earlier. Morally speaking, it was a case of out of sight, out of mind. Their humanism never had to face us.

Back in Oxford, he would soon meet another philosophy student, the future Hebrew University professor Avishai Margalit, an Israeli more conscious of the Palestinian predicament than most. The two saw each other occasionally in a tearoom and scribbled possible solutions to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict on napkins. In later years they would meet on various joint peace initiatives. Nusseibeh felt that Israel, because it was more powerful and held all the cards, should be the first to recognize the PLO. He published articles to this effect in Israeli newspapers. By now the first settlements in the occupied territories—most with and some without government support—were being built. In 1973, Israel was nearly defeated in the third Arab–Israeli war. The occupation was becoming more and more entrenched. Earlier hopes of peace faded. The Palestinians made their first terrorist attacks on Israelis, both at home and abroad. Nusseibeh and Lucy were about to graduate from Oxford and had to decide what to do. He could have stayed in exile, he writes, as so many other children of privileged and educated Palestinians did. All eight of his brothers and sisters actually settled in Europe or America. But he was anxious to return and Lucy was eager to join him. Upon graduation both moved back to East Jerusalem.

Once Upon a Country is a passionate, well-written book, an altogether fresh, subtle, and often humorous approach to what Nusseibeh calls the “selfish contention between two ethnocentric tribes.” (It is a real shame that as fine a publisher as Farrar, Straus and Giroux did not equip this remarkable, politically and historically important book of 542 pages with an index.) If only, he laments, they would realize their potential as strategic allies! Both sides, he claims, are right and both are too often wrong. He found it difficult to take a Manichaean view of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict, Nusseibeh claims, since all too often when the enemy actually does something right for a change, your own side shoots itself in the foot. He blames both sides for the collapse of the Oslo agreement. Yitzhak Rabin and his successors undermined it with their extensive settlement projects on expropriated land in the occupied territories and Arafat did not do all he could to prevent suicide bombings.


As for President Clinton’s Camp David conference in 2000, Nusseibeh recalls Arafat’s response after the invitation was issued “that the two sides weren’t ready. The back-channel contacts with the Israelis didn’t yet promise a successful summit.” “For once,” he writes, “I agreed with Arafat.” Rather than a summit meeting “fated to failure,” he proposed, along with the Israeli writer and academic Mark Heller, that

by prior agreement of the two sides, Palestinians could declare a state with their ideal borders, and Israel could simultaneously recognize an independent Palestinian state in the borders Israel deemed best. The two sides could then enter into negotiations to bridge the difference between the two borders. That way, at least, we could keep the “peace process” alive.

Nusseibeh blames both sides for the collapse of the conference. Ehud Barak, for example, recklessly demanded that Israel retain partial sovereignty over the Temple Mount. In response, “trembling all over,” according to Nusseibeh’s informant, “Arafat refused to recognize that the Jews had any historical connection to the Noble Sanctuary.” He carefully assesses what went wrong:

Dennis Ross [Clinton’s adviser] opens his book2 at Camp David in the summer of 2000. In his mise-en-scène, President Clinton sits pleading with Chairman Arafat, who willfully rejects the best offer he could ever hope to get. Ross’s account lends weight to the stock Israeli line that Arafat responded to Prime Minister Barak’s generosity by unleashing a murderous new intifada.

But for all his failings—and he clearly blew it by not closing some sort of deal at Camp David—Arafat was neither sufficiently in control nor sufficiently villainous to devise such a conspiracy. Ross’s view purposefully simplifies and obfuscates the various forces that conspired to trigger the so-called “second intifada.”

Everyone shares some blame in the summit’s failure. Barak can be faulted for bullying, with his either/or approach, and for trying to deal in nonnegotiable myth. Arafat’s chronic indecision and never-ending suspicion prevented him from coming up with a reasonable counter-offer. After all the years of fighting, he had a chance to get most of what we needed; the rest he could have achieved by building a modern state under the rule of law. But he didn’t do it.

Nusseibeh is one of the rare Palestinian militants who concedes that Israelis have legitimate historical rights to the disputed land. In the nineteenth century the first Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem, Zia el-Khaldi, mentioned by Nusseibeh, was of the same opinion, but was alarmed by the prospect of the return of the Jews, as he wrote in a letter to the chief rabbi of Paris.3 Nusseibeh has infuriated Palestinian hard-liners by claiming that Jewish historical links to Jerusalem happen to be confirmed by “the greatest Islamic tale of all,” Muhammad’s Night Journey in the Koran:

Israelis needed to know that for them to keep their Jewish state required a free Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians needed to know that to get their state required acknowledging the moral right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. There could be no blanket right of return into Israel for the refugees.

Nusseibeh’s position on the Palestinian refugees’ right of return set off a national debate among Palestinians. He reminded Palestinians that a return to their original towns and villages now populated by Israelis was impractical. He took his message personally into refugee camps on the West Bank, including Deheisheh, south of Bethlehem, one of the most “dust-bitten and gun-infested” refugee camps there. “Not only did I survive the evening without a scratch, but I even came out with a fresh dose of faith in the integrity of my people.” But when Nusseibeh also condemned the suicide bombers, few Palestinians joined him. He deplores the continuing inability of both sides to imagine the lives of people on the other side of the conflict.

When he first started to think about his book he happened to be reading Amos Oz’s recent memoir of his childhood, A Tale of Love and Darkness. He was startled, he writes, to find that in Oz’s description of a parallel city on the other side of the conflict, only a “hundred feet,” as he put it, away, there were hardly any Arabs and no hint of the world he had known as a child. This made Nusseibeh ask what his parents had known of the people in Oz’s world and of the holocaust that determined their outlook on life:

Weren’t both sides of the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other?

Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the “other” at the heart of the Israeli– Palestinian conflict?

When he first returned from Oxford after graduation, Nusseibeh still believed in a secular binational state within a united country. He lectured throughout Israel to surprised audiences, proposing that Israel formally annex the occupied territories. Both communities, he said, ought to live in one democratic state under the same law. He found few Israelis who shared this view and a great many who suspected a devious plot to establish a Muslim Palestinian state, since the birth rate among Palestinians was almost double that of Israelis. Israeli right-wingers dubbed him “the smiling face of Palestinian terror,” indeed the “most dangerous Palestinian alive.”

He came to know Israeli politicians. The “thousand faced” Shimon Peres, at the time foreign minister under the fanatically hawkish Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, heard about this unusual Palestinian and invited him to his office. Nusseibeh told Peres that the PLO had changed and was eager to recognize Israel if Israel recognized Palestinian national rights. Peres dismissed this view, saying that a tiger remains a tiger as long as he has his spots. “If the PLO really is serious, it’ll have to shed its spots, in which case the tiger would be a cat, and cat is certainly no tiger,” a clever Talmudic argument, Nusseibeh felt. Peres, who still yearned for a deal with Jordan, wasn’t so bad after all, he decided.

From Arabs, the reaction was less friendly. Writing about Nusseibeh’s proposed binational state, the Jordanian daily Al-Nahar ran the headline “ARAB WANTS TO CONVERT TO JUDAISM” and claimed that “Sari Nusseibeh wants to join the Israeli Army.” He received death threats. One morning, as he was coming out of his class at Birzeit University, he was attacked by four men with fists, clubs, and a broken bottle. His arm was broken. Blood oozed from his face. He was rushed to a hospital. The university reacted with a halfhearted statement denouncing politics on campus. The student union said nothing. Lucy, also a teacher, had just come out of her class when she heard the hubbub and got only a shrugged response from a bystander: “Just a traitor!” Nusseibeh came away from this experience convinced that a two-state solution—rather than a binational state—was the only answer.

He and his wife taught for many years at Birzeit, often claimed by the Israelis to be a “hotbed of Palestinian nationalism.” For some time, he also taught Islamic philosophy at Hebrew University. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, he walked a thin, dangerous line between his career as an internationally recognized philosophy professor and his activities as a subversive militant of the growing nationalist underground. He carried in from Jordan large sums of money for the insurgents. He believed that civil disobedience, not guns, would win Palestinian liberty. He was one of the coordinators of the first intifada (between 1986 and 1993), the so-called intifada of stone-throwing young people. When it first broke out, he was as stunned by it as everybody else. Indirectly, it was his brainchild. Before December 1988, seven hundred soldiers sufficed to keep order in the occupied territories. After the outbreak of the first intifada, eight thousand troops were unable to pacify Gaza alone. Nusseibeh wrote many of the first intifada’s leaflets and co-drafted its political program, calling for direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO. The intifada’s messages were pasted onto walls everywhere on the same day each month. The police tried to intercept them and finally tracked down one of the printing presses. One of his young collaborators, a student, was arrested and tortured but did not give away Nusseibeh’s name:

These village boys, who before their arrest couldn’t make heads or tails out of Kant or Sartre, returned from the interrogation room with a deep understanding of freedom. As paradoxical as it sounds, they reemerged from the Israeli prison camp emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually freer than they were when they went in.

Draconian measures were taken to suppress the uprising. Mayors were dismissed, arrested, and dumped over the Lebanese and Jordanian borders. Houses were demolished; entire areas were confiscated or redefined as military zones. The uprising spread to every Palestinian university. New military orders granted the army near-absolute power over faculty appointments, student admissions, and curriculums. At Birzeit, professors were asked to sign loyalty oaths. They refused, and the army closed the university indefinitely. It would be reopened only after more than four years had passed. Nusseibeh continued to give his courses at his father’s office.

The Israelis were not prepared to defeat a dedicated campaign of civil disobedience whose violence consisted only of throwing stones. Their punitive measures stimulated more opposition. Incredible as it may seem today, the Israelis hoped that Islamic militancy could be used to fight Palestinian nationalism and gave a helping hand to Hamas, at that time mainly a social welfare organization. This policy had its effects. Nusseibeh soon noticed a change among some of his students. “All the humiliations of their brief lives, tossed into a religious cauldron,” he writes, “had turned village boys, and sometimes girls, into implacable fanatics, hostile to the sort of liberty I was trying to teach them to love.” At one point, his office was searched and welded closed.

Nusseibeh was thrown into jail. His lawyer, an Israeli from Danzig who in the 1940s had attended Palestine Law School together with Nusseibeh’s father, informed him that according to the prosecutor they had enough evidence to put him away for fifteen years. They were offering him two options: stand trial or, alternatively, go into voluntary exile for three years. Against the lawyer’s advice, Nusseibeh decided to stand trial: “In none of my opinions,” he told his lawyer, “have I expressed an incitement to violence”; he had come out only in favor of the two-state solution. It turned out the Israelis had been bluffing. Fearing the international consequences of a trial, they chose to do nothing. Nusseibeh was released.

During the first Gulf War Nusseibeh was aghast at Arafat’s decision to side with Saddam Hussein. He was in constant touch with Janet Aviad, the by-then legendary Israeli Peace Now activist who wanted him to distance himself from Arafat and the PLO by endorsing a joint statement with Peace Now condemning Saddam’s attack on Kuwait. He agreed, and they published a joint statement. The Israelis, for some reason, chose this moment to arrest him again, perhaps because the joint statement contradicted the widespread image of Palestinians dancing on rooftops to welcome Iraqi Scud attacks on Israel. An order of the defense minister placed him under “administrative arrest” without trial for a period of six months. This was later reduced to three months. (Israeli Defense Ministry sources spread a rumor that he had been thrown into jail at his own request to improve his tainted image among the extremists.) Nusseibeh used his time in jail to correct proofs of No Trumpets No Drums, a book he had written jointly with Mark Heller, which advocated a two-state solution. He was put in a row of prison cells used for common criminals. When his distraught wife commiserated with him on one of her weekly visits, he assured her that “public school in England was worse.”

Nusseibeh’s own relationship with Arafat, he confesses, had long been tenuous and reserved. He recognized Arafat’s historic role in launching, almost single-handedly, the Palestinian movement and getting it recognized internationally; at the same time he was aware of Arafat’s limitations. Even though Arafat, on one occasion, called for alf shahid—a thousand martyrs—Nusseibeh does not think that Arafat personally sent out suicide bombers. But he feels he certainly did not do all he could to stop them. After Sharon’s provocative tour of the Temple Mount in 2000, the second intifada broke out. It was, in Nusseibeh’s view, a dangerous mass psychosis and, since it had no political agenda, an unmitigated catastrophe. Arafat panicked at first, he says. He thought the new intifada was partly directed against him and ducked out of public view for two months. At a private meeting at Arafat’s besieged headquarters, surrounded by Israeli tanks, Nusseibeh tried to convince him that the new intifada was self-defeating. Arafat seemed to him unfocused and confused; his lower lip was constantly quivering.

Arafat remained a master of ambiguity and mixed signals throughout, Nusseibeh complains, always balancing himself between moderates and militants, unwilling and perhaps unable to come down firmly on either side. Nusseibeh is the first leading Palestinian I know of to write so bravely and so openly, candidly, and authoritatively about Arafat’s flawed leadership and on the inner workings of the new Palestinian Authority. He offers a rare insider’s view of the disorder, incompetence, mismanagement, and widespread corruption in the Palestinian government Arafat formed in 1994. The new Palestinian ministers and other highly placed Palestinians had arrived from exile in Tunis unprepared for their tasks. Some were aging revolutionaries in elegant Armani suits. They hadn’t been to the West Bank since 1948 and did not understand the problems and needs of its people. Nor did they bother to learn. They were dazzled, Nusseibeh writes, by the trappings of power, the state visits, the new flow of uncontrolled international development funds, their luxury cars, the adulation of West Bank Palestinians. They had no inclination to study reports or to listen to the local people who worked for them. Some were thoroughly corrupt. A few were simply “malevolent thugs.” They acted as if they were demigods to the people under them, but ran to Arafat for permission to hire a secretary.

Some—former members of the security services among them—rushed to make deals with shady Israeli businessmen in order to enrich themselves quickly with monopolies on gas, food supplies, and other vital commodities. Only after dire warnings from the World Bank did Arafat agree to appoint a commission of inquiry into such corruption. Nusseibeh was one of its members. The commission submitted a devastating three-hundred-page report. More than 40 percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget was said to be squandered through corruption and mismanagement. Arafat read the report but did nothing about it. “Why, we asked, had he not put an end to it?” Nobody was demoted or brought to trial. The chieftains continued their plunder.

Arafat had an amazing faculty for picking out and remembering details. He could look at a disassembled puzzle and recall where each piece was on the table. What he lacked was the power to put the details together and see the pattern. In the case of corruption, he didn’t see how the rot was undermining his ability to govern and to build up a state.

Nusseibeh approvingly cites a report in The Guardian describing the Palestinian government as a “nepotistic edifice of monopoly, racketeering and naked extortion.” To the man in the street, he writes, the new Palestinian Authority started to look like another “sleazy Arab kleptocracy.” Though he does not accuse Arafat of profiting personally, he was, he writes, always “juggling people and cash, now paying someone off, now turning a blind eye to malfeasance.” In view of this record and also the widespread disillusion with the “peace” process, it is little wonder that in last year’s elections to the Palestinian legislature, the Hamas fundamentalists who promised to clean up the mess won an overwhelming victory.

Nusseibeh is now president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. His book has the ring of hard truth that no other Palestinian I know of has been willing to express with comparable eloquence and courage.

—March 28, 2007

This Issue

April 26, 2007