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An Orphaned People


I have just returned from two separate trips to Jerusalem and the West Bank, where I have been making a film for the BBC on what Israel's fifty years have meant for Palestinians. Traveling the region interviewing people, recording scenes of Palestinian life, impressed upon me two overwhelming and completely contradictory realities, both of them the consequences of 1948.

The first is that Palestine and Palestinians remain, despite Israel's determination to get rid of them or to circumscribe them so much as to nullify them politically. There is no avoiding that, as an idea, a memory and an often buried or obscured reality, Palestine and its people have simply not disappeared. The very fact of our existence has foiled, where it has not defeated, the Israeli effort to destroy us. This is as true for the 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as it is for the 1 million Israeli Palestinians, whose main representative in the Knesset is the remarkable Azmi Bishara. For Bishara, as for an increasing number of Israelis (Professor Israel Shahak in the forefront), the real battle is for equality and the rights of citizenship, given that Israel is explicitly a state for Jews and not for all its citizens. The courage and intelligence of their stand is invigorating a new generation of Palestinians. Contrary to its expressed and implemented intention, therefore, Israel has strengthened the Palestinian presence, which is growing in sheer numbers and which refuses to be denied. No matter where you turn, we are there, often only as humble, silent workers (who ironically labor to build the Israeli settlements) and compliant restaurant waiters, cooks and the like, but often also as substantial communities--in Hebron, for example--which continually resist Israeli encroachments.

The second overriding reality is that minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day, we are losing more Palestinian land to the Israelis. Scarcely a road, or a highway, or a village that we passed hasn't witnessed the daily tragedy of land expropriated; fields bulldozed; trees, plants and crops uprooted; houses demolished, while the Palestinian owners stood by, helpless to stop it. There is nothing quite like the misery one feels listening to a 35-year-old man who worked fifteen years as an illegal day laborer in Israel in order to save up money to build a house for his family only to be shocked one day upon returning from work to find that the house and all that was in it had been flattened by an Israeli bulldozer. When I asked why this was done--the land, after all, was his--I was told that a paper given to him the next day by an Israeli soldier stated that he had built the structure without a license. Where else in the world are people required to have a license (always denied them) to build on their own property? Jews can build, but never Palestinians. This is apartheid.

On the way from Jerusalem to Hebron one day we saw an Israeli bulldozer protected by soldiers plowing through some fertile land alongside the road. About a hundred meters away stood four Palestinian men. It was their land, worked for generations, now being ruined on the pretext that it was needed to widen an already wide road built for the settlements. This is occupied territory, remember, and the soldiers' action was in violation of international law. "Why do they need a road that will be 120 meters wide?" asked one of the men plaintively. "How am I going to feed my children?" Had they received any warning? No, they said, we just heard today and when we got here it was too late. What about Mr. Arafat's Authority? Hasn't it helped? No, of course not, was the answer. It's never here when we need it. Among the soldiers there was one who clearly seemed troubled, though he said he was merely following orders. "But don't you see how unjust it is to take land from farmers who have no defense against you?" I said, to which he replied, "It's not their land really; it belongs to the State of Israel." Sixty years ago, I said, the same argument was made against Jews in Germany, and now here were Jews using it against Palestinians. He moved away, unwilling to respond.

And so it is throughout the territories and Jerusalem, with Palestinians nearly powerless to help one another. At the University of Bethlehem I spoke about the continuous dispossession and wondered why the Authority's 50,000 security people--plus the thousands more who sit in offices pushing paper from one side of the desk to the other, cashing handsome checks at the end of each month--were not out on the land to prevent expropriations. Why, I asked, don't villagers led by members of the Authority go out to their fields and simply stand in front of the bulldozers? And why don't all our great leaders give support and moral help to the poor people who are losing the battle? Wherever I went, whomever I talked to, whatever the question, there was never a good word for the Authority or its officers, or for the Oslo process or for the United States. The Authority is perceived as basically guaranteeing security for Israel and its settlers, furnishing them with protection, not at all as a legitimate or concerned governmental body vis-á-vis its own people. All this is the stain of Oslo. That so many of these leaders should, meanwhile, think it appropriate to build ostentatious villas fairly boggles the mind. If it is to be anything today, Palestinian leadership must demonstrate service and sacrifice, precisely the things so lacking in the Authority. What I found staggering is the absence of care--the sense that each Palestinian is alone in his or her suffering, with no one so much as to offer food, blankets or a kind word. Truly one feels that Palestinians are an orphaned people.

Jerusalem is overwhelming in its relentless Judaization. Divided and segregated, the small, compact city in which I grew up has become a metropolis, surrounded on the north, east and west by immense building projects that testify to Israel's power, unchecked, to change the character of Jerusalem so that Arabs feel harassed and intolerably hemmed in. Here too there is a manifest sense of Palestinian impotence, as if the future is settled. People told me that after September 1996, when Israeli troops fired on Palestinians protesting the opening of a tunnel that undermined the Al Aksa mosque complex, they no longer felt the need to expose themselves to more sacrifice. "After all," one said, "sixty of us were killed, and yet the tunnel remained open, and Arafat went to Washington, despite having said that he would not meet with Netanyahu unless the tunnel was closed. What is the point of struggling now?" It is not only the Palestinian leadership that has failed in Jerusalem; it is also the Arab countries and the United States, which bows before Israeli aggression. Palestinians from Gaza or from the cities of Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jenin and Nablus cannot enter Jerusalem, which is cordoned off by Israeli soldiers. Apartheid once again.

On the Israeli side the situation is less bleak. I interviewed Professor Ilan Pappe of Haifa University. He is one of the new Israeli historians whose work on 1948 has challenged Zionist orthodoxy on the refugee problem and on Ben-Gurion's role in the Palestinian dispossession. They have confirmed what Palestinian historians and witnesses have said all along: that there was a deliberate, violent military campaign to rid the country of as many Arabs as possible. But Pappe also said he is much in demand for lectures in high schools all over Israel, even though the latest textbooks for classes on Israel's history do not mention the Palestinians at all. This blindness coexisting with a new openness regarding the past characterizes the present mood and deserves our attention as a contradiction to be analyzed further.

Likewise, one witnesses small gestures of reconciliation that may be worth more than dozens of Oslo accords. While I was in Jerusalem, Daniel Barenboim was there for a piano recital. Born in Argentina, Barenboim came to Israel in 1950 at the age of 9, lived there for about eight years, and for the past ten years has conducted the Berlin State Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, though he remains an Israeli citizen. Over the past few years he and I have also become close friends. He agreed to an interview in which he regretted that fifty years of Israel should also be the occasion of fifty years of suffering for Palestinians and openly advocated a Palestinian state. At his recital he dedicated his first encore to a Palestinian woman who had invited him to dinner the night before and was present in the hall. I was surprised that the entire audience, almost all Israeli Jews, received his views and noble dedication with enthusiastic applause. Clearly some constituency of conscience is beginning to emerge, partly as a result of Netanyahu's excesses, partly as a result of Palestinian resistance.

And yet one has only to go to Hebron to find the embodiment of the worst aspects of Oslo. Some 400 settlers control the heart of an Arab city whose population of 100,000 is unable to visit the city center, constantly under threat from zealots and soldiers alike. I visited a man in the old Ottoman quarter. He is surrounded by settler bastions, including three new buildings, plus three enormous water tanks that steal most of the city's water for the settlers, plus several rooftop nests of soldiers. He was bitter that Arafat had accepted the town's partition on the entirely specious grounds that it had once contained fourteen Jewish buildings dating to biblical times but no longer in evidence. "How did these Palestinian negotiators accept such a grotesque distortion of reality--especially since at the time they made the deal not one of them had ever set foot in Hebron?" he asked. The next day three young men were killed at the barricade by soldiers, and many more were injured in the fighting that ensued. Hebron and Jerusalem are victories for Israeli extremism, not for coexistence or any optimistic future.

So despite some rays of hope, a great cloud of injustice hangs over the Holy Land. Among Israeli, U.S. and Palestinian leaders there is too little vision, and among the Palestinians too much anguish. At such a time it is important to testify to the continued potency of the Palestinian cause for self-determination. After three weeks of recording stories of a people's dispossession, the Israeli sound engineer in our crew said, "It is hard to be an Israeli again." But it is much harder to be a Palestinian, for whom the choices today are apartheid or fruitless waiting for Israel to withdraw. It is a situation both tenuous and volatile.


Edward W. Said's latest book is Peace and Its Discontents (Vintage).

Copyright (c) 1996, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212) 242-8400, ext. 226 or send e-mail to Max Block.



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