issue 177 - November 1987
No God or Angel
Two peoples, both persecuted, both hungry for a
homeland - and both locked into a conflict over the same
'home': Palestine. Israeli Dan Leon attacks his country's
policy and argues for a Palestinian state.
The rickety boat on which I travelled to Israel in order to settle in the young State was chock full of new immigrants from east and west, a strange and motley crowd of passengers differing completely from each other in countries of origin, background, lifestyle and mentality, as well as in outward appearance. Not only did we look different, speak different languages, pray differently - if at all - but we also had different expectations regarding life in our new homeland.
We had only one thing in common: we were Jews 'going up' - that is how the Hebrew expresses it - to Israel. It was 1951, three years after the establishment of the State. In its first three years of independence, Israel's population doubled as Jews from a hundred countries poured in.
Why did they choose to make their lives in Israel? And why did I? It was, after all, a small country no larger than Wales and lacking the resources to absorb the immigrants smoothly. The words of Israel's Declaration of Independence were known to very few of the immigrants but its first paragraph tried to answer the question: 'The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained Statehood ... ' Throughout their exile and dispersion Jews had never ceased to pray and hope for the return to their birthplace and for the restoration of their political freedom.
It was modern Zionism which expressed the hunger of the Jewish people for land and homeland so that we could write our own history rather than appear as footnotes to the history of others. The Jews know much suffering and persecution but it was the Holocaust which finally convinced Jews and non-Jews alike that in a world of nation-states the rights of the Jewish people could no longer be overlooked.
The State of Israel is now nearly 40 years old. The sons and daughters, and the grandchildren, of those who landed with me in Haifa, were born and bred in the country. Among them there is indeed a lunatic fringe of Jewish racists - even in the democratically elected Knesset. This does not mean that Zionism, as a movement of national liberation, is racist. Where else except Israel could the people on my ship - including holocaust survivors and homeless Jews from all over the world - go in order to rebuild their lives and restore their dignity?
And the question 'Why Israel?' has been understood in this spirit of a people returning to its historical homeland by outstanding humanists, Jews and non-Jews, from all over the world. A good example is the British Socialist leader Aneurin Bevan who wrote in 1954: 'For the Jew, the immediacy of his remote past is an intimate reality. He is living among places whose names are enshrined in his racial literature and they make sweet music to his ears... for they whisper in his blood and evoke memories of a time that was, before he was compelled to seek shelter in reluctant lands.' Bevan understood the Arab case but argued that 'it is no answer to say that many centuries have passed into history since the Jew was at home in Palestine. If he had been permitted the security of a safe home elsewhere, the answer might do. But, as we know, it was not so.'1
The Palestinian case for self-determination is just as valid as that of the Jews. They are no less attached to the land, for if the modern Jewish 'Return' started a century ago, the local Palestinian Arabs had been there for many centuries. The United Nations resolved in 1947 that there was no alternative but to partition the country into Jewish and Arab States. Whereas the Jews accepted the compromise, the Arab leadership tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent its implementation by force. In their bloody War of Independence, the Israelis lost one per cent of their population. Since then the conflict has cast its long shadow over the area. spawning six wars and leading to a tragic loss of life - and the waste of resources that should be spent on improving the lives of millions of people. It has also led to a vast accumulation of arms, bringing closer the threat of nuclear warfare in the Middle East.
The basic Israeli error lies in the claim that since the Arabs 'missed the bus' in 1947-48, and again in l967, they must 'pay the price'. Having 'tried and failed to win it all, they lost it all' and 'the clock of history cannot be reset'. Historical experience tends to prove the exact opposite, as the restoration of Germany after Hitler's war shows. Leaders and policies come and go but the national rights of peoples remain. Any solution in the Middle East which tries to overlook the legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people to self-determination is therefore not worth the paper it is written on.
There are indeed Palestinians who still dream of 'throwing the Jews into the sea', just as there are Israelis who would 'transfer' one and a half million Palestinians from the occupied territories - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, conquered by Israel in 1967. In essence, however, we are not dealing with right against wrong but with two rights, two authentic national movements laying claim to the same territory. This inescapable reality is most eloquently expressed by Israeli writer Amos Oz:
'I believe in a Zionism that faces facts, that exercises strength with restraint, that sees the Jewish past as a lesson, but neither as a mystical imperative nor as a malignant dream... a Zionism that accepts both the spiritual implications and the political consequences of the fact that this small but precious land is the homeland of two peoples fated to live facing each other, willv-nilly, because no God or angel will descend to judge between right and right The lives of both depend on the hard, tortuous and essential process of learning to know each other in the strife-torn landscape of the beloved country.'2
Both Palestinians and Jews should have an equal interest in a compromise which would divide the land so as to meet the legitimate aspirations of both peoples as far as possible. Those, on either side, who think in terms of 'all or nothing' are their own greatest enemies, whatever their motivation. The independent Palestinian State, to be established side by side with Israel in the occupied territories, involves Israel's returning more or less to her 1948-67 borders. That means withdrawing from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There are already as many Arab as Jewish children in Palestine (the territories and Israel) and by the end of the century the populations will be almost the same. Since the Palestinians in the territories lack all political rights, formal annexation by Israel would transform Israel into an apartheid state. There is no reason to believe that the occupation can endure without explosion.
Israelis like myself are bitterly frustrated by the innumerable ways in which the occupation eats away like a cancer at all that is best in Israeli society, undermining those values of democracy, self-labour, humanism and fraternity on which the Zionist ethos was founded. It is hard to equate this occupation of the past 20 years with the fine language of the Declaration of Independence. Ending it is not only a moral but also a political imperative. If it was possible in spite of all the scepticism, doubts and soul searching to make peace with Egypt, it must be possible to reach peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. Time works against us because as the occupation drags on, so does the hatred, the urge for revenge and the endless cycle of action and reprisal.
Journalist Dan Leon is active in the Peace Now movement. He has written, edited and translated several books about Israel.
1 From Bevan by Michael Foot (Vol.2. Davis Pointer, 1973).
2 From the essay Meaning of the Homeland which appears in Who is left? Zionism Answers Back by Amos Oz (Zionist Library, 1971).
Anger and thirst
SA'DEAH Al Bakri is a 45-year-old peasant woman from Khalli. It is her homeland. Her family has always lived and farmed there. But today if she wants to plant an orange tree she must seek permission from foreigners. If she wants to dig a well to irrigate her fields she comes upagainst law 1015 which prohibits her from doing so. And if her land falls fallow and sterilefor lack of water it can be confiscated, also under law 1015.
For Sa'deah has the misfortune of living in the West Bank, part of Jordan until it was occupied by Israeli forces in the 1967 war and now the focus of a controversial Israeli settlement programme. Already 14 hectares of her land have been confiscated by the settlers who for several years have been trying to force herto part wIth the remaining three hectares.
The Israeli settlement programme began in earnest in 1976 when the Government announced plans to confiscate 3,000 acres of land in Galilee, an area in the north of Palestine allocated to the Palestinians in the UN Partition Plan of 1947. The land belonged to the three villages of Sakhnin, 'Arraba and Dir Hanna. The inhabitants protested. Hundreds of villagers confronted Israeli bulldozers and troops. Six villagers were shot, 69 wounded and 260 arrested.
Today over half the land of the West Bank has been confiscated. Much of what remains in Palestinian hands has been rendered unprofitable because of the scarcity of water, which the Israeli settlers claim as the 'Property of the State of Israel'. Fewer than ten licences have been granted to Palestinians to dig new wells since 1967. To make matters worse many of the old wells are now dried up because the new Israeli wells, dug with hi-tech equipment, are deeper and drain the aquifer to below the level of existing Palestinian wells. Entire villages are now 'dry' and women have to walk several miles to collect water.
This is subtle, creeping annexation. But the means used to grab land can be a lot more violent, Palestinian olive groves have been uprooted, citrus trees destroyed, irrigation channels smashed and houses demolished or their inhabitants frightened away by grenade attacks.
Lutfeih Atweh, a 60-year old mother of six, tells of how Israeli soldiers demolished her home in the villageof Safe , the day after her son was arrested. The boy was never charged.
'An army officer said that he had an order to demolish this house. We would have to evacuate it. I asked what about our furniture. "You can move it, you have half an hour to do that." A number of women soldiers came in and started to help us move out the furniture. Some of them were laughing, but one of them cried.
The officer then said that my son was trying to kill his people, trying to finish them off. He held me by the hand and said: "Why should he want to do that?" Was there not enough bread in the house to eat? I told him my son was not Starving. He was angry, the blood was boiling in his veins.'
Land to the Palestinians is not just the earth in which to grow food or a space in which to build a home. It is also a national identity which they are being denied. The value of their land cannot be defined in terms of money. Which is why they have continually rejected the offer of compensation for land taken away from them.
There are now 211 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights. They are built strategically on hill tops, surrounded by barbed wire. House building, road construction and other infrastructural works all take place on confiscated Palestinian land. Some groups of extremist Zionist settlers have even started taking over Palestinian villages by occupying key buildings, such as the local school. It is now commonplace to see a machine-gun-toting Isreali settler, clad in shorts and pushing his child in a buggy around the marketplace of a Palestinian village.
The main Israeli settler movements, Gush Emunim and Kach, headed by Rabbi Meir Kahane, are uncompromising in their demand for the removal of all Palestinians from the West Bank, which they call Judas and Samaria. They state that: 'The Arabs are merely temporary dwellers on the land of Israel'. The dual claims to the land of Palestine are complicated. The Occupied Territories are internationally recognized as Palestinian land but the rights of the people who live there are Internationally ignored.
Nearly 40 years in refugee camps and 20 years under occupation cannot be swept under the rug. For Palestinians the issue is not simply land as hill, river and valley. It is also the right to use natural resources, the right to provide shelter, employment and freedom from fear. Above all Palestinians have a right to a homeland where they may govern themselves and decide their own future.
Freelance writer Sara Gowen worked in a Women's Centre in a village on the West Bank.