The Palestinians: the more things change, the more they.....
A reader recently alerted me to an astounding article by Martha Gellhorn which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in October of 1961, forty-four years ago.
Gellhorn was quite a story in herself. Beautiful, brilliant, brave, she was the third wife of Hemingway (a fact she wanted biographers to omit when writing about her) and a well-known journalist and author.
The article is entitled "The Arabs of Palestine," and it was the result of a series of interviews Gellhorn had with residents of Palestinian refugee camps, and talks with Israeli Arabs, as well. The article is long, but well worth reading in its entirety, although it is available by paid subscription only. I will quote some excerpts, but I suggest you try to obtain it and read it to get its full flavor.
At the time of Gellhorn's article, the various refugee camps she visited were under the jurisdiction of Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Keep in mind, also, that she was describing conditions that existed long before the 1967 war that resulted in Israel having jurisdiction over some of the areas Gellhorn visited. Therefore nothing Gellhorn writes about Palestinian attitudes towards Israel could possibly be the result of an "occupation" that hadn't yet occurred.
Here are some of her opening salvos:
Although no one knows exactly how many refugees are scattered everywhere over the globe, it is estimated that since World War II, and only since then, at least thirty-nine million non-Arab men, women, and children have become homeless refugees, through no choice of their own....The world could be far more generous to these unwilling wanderers, but at least the world has never thought of exploiting them. They are recognized as people, not pawns. By their own efforts, and with help from those devoted to their service, all but some six million of the thirty-nine million have made a place for themselves, found work and another chance for the future. To be a refugee is not necessarily a life sentence.
The unique misfortune of the Palestinian refugees is that they are a weapon in what seems to be a permanent war. Alarming signs, from Egypt, warn us that the Palestinian refugees may develop into more than a justification for cold war against Israel...today, in the Middle East, you get a repeated sinking sensation about the Palestinian refugees: they are only a beginning, not an end. Their function is to hang around and be constantly useful as a goad.
They have certainly preserved that function, haven't they? Over forty years after Gellhorn wrote these prescient words, the Palestinians are still hanging around as refugees, and still a goad.
The camps, then as now, were administered by UNRWA. Gellhorn visited eight, along with a Palestinian translator, and talked to many of the residents.
UNRWA is running a world, simply, a little welfare state. It makes villages, called camps, and keeps them clean and free of disease, feeds, educates, trains teachers and technicians and craftsmen, operates clinics and maternity centers, sends out visiting nurses, encourages small private enterprises with small loans, distributes clothing, soap, kerosene, blankets, provides hospitalization, footballs, youth clubs, mosques...
Gellhorn describes an UNRWA camp in Lebanon which was inhabited by Christian Arabs:
The camp consisted of little cement or frame houses rambling over the hillside, a village of poor people, disorderly and beflowered and cheerful. School was letting out for lunch; troops of children, dressed in the pinafore uniform that small boys and girls wear in Italian schools, meandered home, shouting bye-bye at friendly, giggling length. They are Roman Catholics here, but the young teachers are refugees, not priests. They have to teach the children about Palestine, since most of them have never seen the country and even the oldest cannot remember it. The children are taught hate, the Garden of Eden stolen from them by murderers; their duty is to live for Return and Revenge.
Gellhorn speaks to the camp leader there and has one of the first of what she calls "Mad Hatter conversations":
It went like this:
"The Arab countries invaded Israel in 1948 to save the Palestine Arabs from being massacred by the Jews."
"Were there massacres? Where?"
"Oh, yes, everywhere. Terrible, terrible."
"Then you must have lost many relatives and friends."
This, being a tiresome deduction from a previous statement, is brushed aside without comment.
"Israel overran the truce lines and stole our country. We left from fear. We have a right to our property, which brings in 47 million pounds a year in income. If we had our own money, we would need nothing from UNRWA. Our own money is much more. We do not have to be grateful for the little money spent on us. We should have our own."
"Then, of course, you want to return to your property and to Israel?"
"Not to Israel. Never to Israel. To our own country, to our own part."
"But didn't the Jews accept Partition, while the Palestine Arabs and the Arab governments refused?"
"Yes, yes. And England protected the Jews. An Arab was arrested if he carried a pistol only to defend himself, but Jews could go through the streets in tanks and nothing happened to them. Also, England told the Arab states to attack Israel."
The principal of the school then spoke up. "In our school, we teach the children from their first year about their country and how it was stolen from them. I tell my son of seven. You will see: one day a man of eighty and a child so high, all, all will go home with arms in their hands and take back their country by force."
When Gellhorn and her guide leave the meeting, the guide astonishes her by showing surprising reasonableness--in private (he seems to have possibly been one of those mythical "moderate Palestinians" about which we've argued so much):
"It can all be solved with money," he said. "Now the people have nothing in their mouths but words, so they talk. Money fills the mouth too. If every man got a thousand dollars for each member of his family, for compensation to have lost his country, and he could be a citizen in any Arab country he likes, he would not think of Palestine any more. Then he could start a new life and be rich and happy. And those who really do own something in Palestine must be paid for what they had there. But those are not many. Most had nothing, only work."
Gellhorn describes Gaza almost forty-five years ago, when it was administered by Egypt:
The Egyptian government is the jailer. For reasons of its own, it does not allow the refugees to move from this narrow strip of land. The refugees might not want to leave at all, or they, might not want to leave for good; but anyone would become claustrophobic if penned, for thirteen years, inside 248 square kilometers. A trickle of refugees, who can prove they have jobs elsewhere, are granted exit visas. The only official number of the departed is less than three hundred, out of 255,000 registered refugees. It seems incredible. Rumor says that more refugees do manage to go away illegally, by unknown methods.
These locked-in people--far too many in far too little space--cannot find adequate work. Naturally, there is less chance of employment than in the other "host countries." Meantime, they are exposed to the full and constant blast of Egyptian propaganda. No wonder that Gaza was the home base of the trained paramilitary bands called commandos by the Egyptians and Palestinians, and gangsters by the Israelis--the fedayin, whose job was to cross unnoticed into Israel and commit acts of patriotic sabotage and murder. And having been so devastatingly beaten by Israel again, in 1956, has not improved the trapped, bitter Gaza mentality; it only makes the orators more bloodthirsty.
When one reads that passage, the previous speaker's point becomes even more poignant: if the Palestinian "could be a citizen in any Arab country he likes, he would not think of Palestine any more." Ah, but Palestinians can't become such citizens--and there's the rub.
Gellhorn has an interview with the Palestinian leader of a camp in Gaza:
First the camp leader told me how rich they had all been in Palestine and how miserable they were now and how much land they had all owned. I do not doubt for one minute how much land some of them owned, nor how rich some of them were, and I did not point out this subtle distinction: if everyone owned the land claimed, Palestine would be the size of Texas; if everyone had been so rich, it would have been largely populated by millionaires...
Then he spoke of Jaffa, his native town. The Jews surrounded the city, firing on all sides; they left one little way out, by the sea, so the Arabs would go away. Only the very old and the very poor stayed, and they were killed. Arab refugees tell many dissimilar versions of the Jaffa story, but the puzzler is: where are the relatives of those who must have perished in the fury of high explosive the infallible witnesses? No one says he was loaded on a truck (or a boat) at gun point; no one describes being forced from his home by armed Jews; no one recalls the extra menace of enemy attacks, while in flight. The sight of the dead, the horrors of escape are exact, detailed memories never forgotten by those who had them. Surely Arabs would not forget or suppress such memories, if they, too, had them.
As for those Arabs who remained behind, they are still in Jaffa--3000 of them--living in peace, prosperity, and discontent, with their heirs and descendants.
"The Jews are criminals," the camp leader continued in a rising voice. "Murderers! They are the worst criminals in the whole world."
Had he ever heard of Hitler?
He banged his table and said, "Hitler was far better than the Jews!"
"Far better murderer? He killed six million Jews as a start," I observed.
"Oh, that is all exaggerated. He did not. Besides, the Jews bluffed Hitler. They arranged in secret that he should kill a few of them--old ones, weak ones--to make the others emigrate to Palestine."
"Thirty-six thousand of them," said the Secret Service man, proving the point, "came here, before the war, from Central Europe."
"It's amazing," I said. "I have never before heard anywhere that the Jews arranged with Hitler for him to kill them."
"It was a secret!" the camp leader shouted. "The documents have been found. Everyone knows. It was published. The Jews arranged it all with Hitler."
Everywhere Gellhorn goes she has similar "Mad Hatter" conversations. At the time these talks must have seemed most odd indeed, but these are ideas with which we have now become all too familiar. The rot in the Palestinian world apparently set in long before the "occupation," long before Arafat became its corrupt and corrupting leader.
I disagree with a few things Gellhorn says (in particular, she accepts in its totality the Palestinian version of Dir Yassin), but I think she gets the big picture right.
Back then, the outlook actually seemed marginally more hopeful--for one thing, the Palestinians had only been in this situation for thirteen years. It is far worse now that time has passed, and after Oslo allowed Arafat to drain the Palestinian coffers while preaching ever more hatred.
But any quibbles I have with the article are minor; Gellhorn's piece could practically have been written today in terms of the conversations and the patterns of thought she describes.
Here is part of her summation of the situation as she saw it then:
I had appreciated and admired individual refugees but realized I had felt no blanket empathy for the Palestinian refugees, and finally I knew why...It is hard to sorrow for those who only sorrow over themselves. It is difficult to pity the pitiless. To wring the heart past all doubt, those who cry aloud for justice must be innocent. They cannot have wished for a victorious rewarding war, blame everyone else for their defeat, and remain guiltless....
Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it. Jews top the hate list, but any foreigners are hateful enough. Arabs also hate each other, separately and, en masse. Their politicians change the direction of their hate as they would change their shirts. Their press is vulgarly base with hate-filled cartoons; their reporting describes whatever hate is now uppermost and convenient. Their radio is a long scream of hate, a call to hate. They teach their children hate in school. They must love the taste of hate; it is their daily bread. And what good has it done them?
There is no future in spending UN money to breed hate. There is no future in nagging or bullying Israel to commit suicide by the admission of a fatal locust swarm of enemies. There is no future in Nasser's solution, the Holy War against Israel; and we had better make this very clear, very quickly.
Well, it's way too late to make this very clear very quickly. Forty-four years have gone by. Nasser is long dead, and even Arafat; but the Holy War against Israel lives.
But it's still not too late to make it very clear--if only the world agreed to do so.