issue 161 - July 1986
No place to call home
Westerners equate the Middle East with mind
less violence - while ignoring the trauma of stateless
Palestinians. Sheila Ryan exposes the roots of terrorism.
Photo: Paul Conklin / Camera Press
MOHAMMED Sarhan, a 19-year-old Palestinian, was the sole survivor of the gunmen who sprayed bullets at passengers in the Rome airport last December 27. In his pocket Italian police found a note. 'As you have violated our land and our honour' the manifesto read, 'we will violate everything, even your children.'
Like the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, Sarhan was a Palestinian refugee from the Shatila camp in Beirut Sabra and Shatila, adjacent poor communities in Beirut, came to the world's attention in September 1982, when the right-wing Phalange militia was sent into the camps by its ally, the Israeli army. Ostensibly after PLO sympathizers, the militiamen massacred civilians. No official casualty count exists, but some 1,200 death certificates were issued for those believed to have been killed in the camps.
In fact, the Sabra-Shatila tragedy helps explain why young Palestinians like Sarhan turn to terrorism - despite repeated opposition by the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In November, 1985 PLO Chairman Yassar Arafat stressed his condemnation of 'all acts of terrorism involving countries or carried out by individuals or groups against innocent and defenseless people anywhere.'
To understand the plight of the people of Sabra and Shatila is to realize that the real question is not 'why is there terrorism?' But, 'why is there not more of it?' Were some diabolical social engineer to design an environment to provide the perfect growth conditions for terrorism, the result would be something very like Sabra and Shatila. However the miseries of these people neither began nor ended with that Phalange massacre. Those Palestinian residents and most of the other half-million or so refugees from northern Palestine in 1947 - 48 or are the offspring of those original refugees.
That upheaval 40 years ago is remembered by Israelis as the War of Independence. But Palestinians recall it bitterly as the 'nakba' or catastrophe. Some 750,000 Palestinians fled in fear. Many were forced out by fighters who were to become the army of the new state of Israel. Refugees from southern Palestine streamed into the Gaza Strip; those from the west went to Jordan, and those from the north to Lebanon or Syria. In an instant the basic political right to determine their own future as a sovereign, independent people was snatched away.
Beyond the trauma of sudden exile were the anxieties of political insecurity. When the French withdrew from Lebanon they left an awkwardly contrived political system divided according to religion. The system became more intolerable to the Lebanese Muslim majority as their numbers grew; there was a glaring contrast with the political supremacy guaranteed to the Maronite Christian community.
By the mid-1970s, when Lebanon erupted in civil war, the Palestinians, as part of the Muslim majority and as obvious allies of the local Muslims were drawn into the strife. The Phalange and other rightist groups rooted in the Maronite community announced their goal of driving the Palestinians out of Lebanon. The Tel az Zaatar refugee camp was the first attacked by rightwing Christian militias - more than 1,000 Palestinians were massacred in August, 1976.
The PLO managed during this time to create a kind of autonomous political space for itself in Lebanon. Recognized by the UN as the Palestinians' representative in 1974, the PLO flourished in the Fakahani neighbourhood near Sabra and Shatila. Here the Palestinians enjoyed a freedom to speak and publish that was virtually unknown in the Arab world. National institutions of all kinds blossomed, from co-operative businesses to cultural projects. Then in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and laid siege to Beirut, even this tiny glimpse of political freedom was denied. No substitute for it has yet been found.
The pain of exile and the political insecurity which mark Palestinian life in Lebanon also affect Palestinians living in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere.
But about half the Palestinians still live within the borders of 'historic Palestine' in Israel itself, and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - occupied by the Israelis since 1967. Over 750,000 Palestinians live in the West Bank, and nearly half a million in the Gaza Strip. For the past 19 years these Palestinians have lived under military occupation. Their newspapers are censored, their universities closed and their towns placed under curfew.
The most painful result of the Israeli military occupation is the steady alienation of land. According to former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, Israel will soon control 40 per cent of the land in the West Bank and more than 30 per cent in the Gaza Strip. This land is either currently used by Israeli settlers or will be allocated to them in the future. Some 51,000 Israeli settlers now live in the West Bank, with thousands more in east Jerusalem.
The Israelis have taken over the land in a variety of ways. Some has been seized by the governor for 'essential and urgent military needs' - and then transferred to settlers. Or the Israeli authorities may declare an area state land.' Land tilled intermittently by Palestinian farmers, a common practice in areas only marginally cultivable by traditional methods, is especially vulnerable to seizure. Military orders issued in 1973 forbid Palestinians from planting fruit trees or vegetables without obtaining official permission, a move geared to expanding the area under direct Israeli control.
When farmers lose their land they have little choice but to join half the labour force of the West Bank and Gaza Strip already employed in Israel. Once-independent Palestinian farmers now wait forlornly by Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate hoping an Israeli employer will come along and a quick bargain can be struck for a day's labour. Even those working 'legally' in Israel, through the Labour Ministry, are confined to the lowest-paid jobs, working on construction jobs or picking fruit. Workers from the occupied territories can only take jobs which no Israeli is available to fill.
On average, according to government statistics, Palestinians earn approximately half the average wage of Israeli workers. A 1982 survey by the Israeli labour organization, Histadrut, found West Bank Palestinian construction workers were paid 50 to 60 per cent less than Israelis doing the same jobs.
In addition, Israeli law provides a three month prison sentence for workers from the occupied territories remaining overnight in Israel. In fact, because of the time and expense of commuting, the law is routinely flouted. Palestinian workers sleep at building sites, locked into workshops from the outside, and in chicken coops.
In many cases these Palestinians were born in this land where they work as foreigners - having left what is now Israel for refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza in 1947. Now they pass their ruined villages en route to jobs, or see their parents' homes taken over by Israelis.
Some 600,000 Palestinians live in Israel itself, just 17 per cent of the country's population. These Palestinians remained in their homeland when most of their compatriots fled.
Life is not easy for those classified as 'non-Jews' in a country whose Declaration of Independence calls it 'a Jewish state. Over 90 per cent of the land in Israel is owned by the Government or the Jewish National Fund. All 'non-Jews' are excluded from the right to lease or otherwise use this land. What makes this even more bitter is that most Palestinian land confiscated by the Government over the years is now part of the State land forbidden to their use.
The Palestinians still have no national territory under their control. And their daily miseries continue: the squalid poverty of 40 years of refugee life, the continued alienation of their land, discrimination in jobs and wages, and their lack of political power.
Yet the vast majority of the Palestinian resistance movement is on record as opposed to terrorism. For example, the PLO promptly condemned last year's terrorist attacks in the Rome and Vienna airports.
Spectacular international hijackings and hostage seizures capture the world's attention. But these terrorist atrocities are endorsed by a tiny handful of Palestinians. The Israeli government routinely classifies all armed Palestinian actions as terrorism. But violence against Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip might more accurately be seen as guerrilla tactics against foreign occupation.
Since 1967, the movement for Palestinian national rights has met stiff resistance from an array of forces. The PLO has come under fire from Israel, Jordan, Syria, right-wing Lebanese militias, Lebanese government troops and Amal, the Lebanese Shi'a organization. Eight years have passed since the UN General Assembly recognized the PLO as the 'sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people'. Yet Israel and the US refuse to deal with the PLO - and the prospect of Middle East peace seems more remote than ever. Neither diplomacy nor guerrilla war has brought results.
Is it any wonder a small fraction of these dispossessed people listen to the shadowy figures who preach the efficacy of bloodshed in an international media drama when all else seems to have failed?
Sheila Ryan is an associate editor of Merip Reports