Israel & Palestine

An unequal struggle

In a recent (November) visit to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron, Tiberias, Ramallah, and other points in Israel and the West Bank, I heard it said that a reporter who spends a week on such a tour can write a book on his return. If you stay a month, you may be able to do an article. A year, and you get a major case of writer’s block. Too much complexity, too many contradictions.

Well, I arrived on a Saturday and left on the following Saturday (starting at 2:30 a.m.!), and I could indeed write a book, but only by making unashamed use of all the handouts from various sources that I picked up or were thrust upon me. It might even be a pretty good book, but partisan: All the handouts were pro-Palestinian. So was the sponsor of the tour, the American Committee on Jerusalem, founded and run by Arab-Americans, their answer to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. And so also most of my companions on the tour: a writer from Sojourners magazine, a TV reporter/producer from PBS’s "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," an editor of the Christian Century, complete with spouse, a reporter from the Voice of America, an Arab-American retiree from the U.S. State Department, and a former engineer who spends his retirement organizing in Chicago-area churches on behalf of a shared Jerusalem. A most congenial group. Most of us talked mostly or exclusively with Palestinian sources: among others, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, a representative of the Latin patriarchate, a Lutheran bishop, the minister for tourism of the Palestine Authority (PA), the editor of the largest Arabic-language daily in the region (based in Nazareth), the pastor of a Catholic parish in Bir Zeit, an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset, a Jordanian author/journalist often seen on network news shows in the United States. We were free to make our own contacts with Israeli sources; but, I have to confess, I didn’t.

To complete this acknowledgment I will mention that I was pro-Israel during and after the 1948 conflict, known to Israelis as the War of Independence, to Palestinians as the Disaster, and also during and after the Six-Day War of 1967. My bias suffered a switch during my first visit to the Middle East thirty (yes, thirty) years ago. It was a moving and at times enraging experience. So now you know where I’m coming from, and some of you may wish to stop reading.

Here are some of my 1999 observations:

The Holy Land is a hilly land. The holier the hillier-or so I felt-after our first-day walking-walking-walking tour of the Old City, site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock, among other sacred sites. For me it was not a wholly edifying experience, because of new evidence that while my left leg, along with the rest of me, is a mere seventy-seven years old, my right leg is ninety-four and aging fast. I was the group laggard.

In my eyes, and those of partisans on all sides-Jews, Muslims, Christians, in all their varieties-the Old City is Jerusalem. That is a principal (not the only) reason why Israel annexed it from Jordan, along with all of East Jerusalem, after the 1967 war; why Palestinians reject Israel’s action as unjust and contrary to the law of nations; and why the status of East Jerusalem will be a major sticking point in the "final negotiations," if they ever get final. It is not cynical but realistic to conclude that a major factor in the struggle for control over Jerusalem and other hallowed places is revenue from tourism, in dollars, euros, pounds, francs, deutschemarks, etc. We were told that tour groups led by Israeli guides are warned that it’s not safe to stay in Palestinian-controlled areas (not so, in our collective experience; two young women in our group walked anywhere they liked, night or day, feeling secure), and/or that accommodations are inferior (true, they’re not posh, but our hotel, the Meridian, was clean, comfortable, and well-run (free plug). We weren’t told, but I’d be willing to bet half the farm that very different advice comes from guides with Palestinian ties.

That’s a minor matter. Some others that I found more significant:

• Greenery. There’s a lot of it in West Jerusalem and other areas where Israeli Jews are dominant, not much in areas controlled or populated by Palestinians. It has nothing to do with tastes in landscaping, and everything to do with who controls the water.

• Access. Our big yellow GMC van, owned and operated by an Arab with Israeli citizenship, had yellow license plates, so that we breezed through most checkpoints; when we were stopped the interrogation was brief. It would have been more intense if our plates had been white or green, denoting residence in Gaza or the West Bank. An Arab living in, say, Ramallah, who wants to go to Jerusalem to worship in the al-Aksa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, or to visit his ailing mother, needs a permit. They’re hard to get.

• Housing demolitions. You’re a Palestinian holding proper title to a piece of land in East Jerusalem. You request a permit to build a house. It’s costly if you get it, but in most cases it doesn’t come, doesn’t come, doesn’t come; so you decide to build the house anyway. You receive a notice saying that the house is illegal and is slated for demolition. That may happen in two weeks or not for two years. When it does happen and the timing is known, volunteers from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may arrive to protest by lying in front of the bulldozers. They are dragged away, and the demolition proceeds. If you’re desperate enough and have the means, you may choose to rebuild on the site, and the scenario may be repeated.

• Settlements. They’re everywhere on the West Bank, or so it seemed, recognizable for their unvarying, unadorned, uninspired architecture. Our sources claimed that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has betrayed campaign promises by stopping construction on only a few nascent settlements, little more than camps, while encouraging continued expansion of established settlements. We saw ongoing construction work in some of the latter. (Early in December, Barak announced a moratorium on new construction in existing settlements, citing the Palestinian protests that became familiar to us.)

• Refugees. We toured a camp, some of whose resident families have lived there for decades. It wasn’t a tent city, like the one I visited, nervously, thirty years ago, but the buildings were jammed together and decrepit, the streets between them unpaved and dusty. It was slummy and depressing. But the kids seemed healthy. Out of compassion for my leg I opted out of part of the tour, and sat by the side of the road, where children five to seven years old gathered to stare at me (maybe it’s the beard) and to play with me. But later, as I trudged toward the entrance, a group of older boys, ten to thirteen, gathered around me insistently (and angrily?) demanding shekels. I was reminded of Lord of the Flies. Fortunately, the engineer in our party, who is six-feet-three-inches and somatically well endowed, hove into sight, and the kids gave up.

• Refugees (2). Respected Israeli historians, along with other scholars, have deconstructed the myth that all the Arabs who left their homes in what is now Israel left voluntarily in the 1948 war, urged on by broadcasts from Arab capitals. There were no such broadcasts. Israeli army units committed atrocities and forced expulsions in Arab villages, and reports of these were purposefully used to spread terror among Arabs elsewhere. But, in the public mind, particularly in the United States, revisionist history hasn’t caught up with the realities of the past. Predictably, our sources did not dwell upon, or mention, the murderous tactics used by irredentist Palestinians against their purported oppressors, mostly civilians, some of them babies, for the militarily unachievable, politically stupid, morally unjustified aim of driving the Israelis into the Mediterranean. Regardless of provocations, of which there have been plenty, that’s not forgivable. But Arab use of terrorism isn’t news to anyone who’s read the American press over the past half-century.

• The maps. In the peace process negotiations, the Palestinian Authority holds at best a pair of treys and a couple of jacks; Israel’s hand makes up a royal flush. It’s a slingless David against a wealthy and well-armed Goliath. (The Arab countries are not at the table; at best, they’re kibitzers.) That’s why Israeli maps of the future Palestine show an area dotted with settlements connected by bypass roads, and demonstrate why the "concessions" made to the Palestinians constitute what are essentially Bantustans, carefully segregated one from another. Building a governable nation and a viable economy on such a base asks miracles. One can understand why today’s Israeli governments don’t want to help give birth to a unified, potentially prosperous Arab state next to Israel’s borders. But one can still believe they’re making a historic mistake.

• The U.S. role. Dennis Ross, special U.S. envoy to the Mideast, arriving in Israel during our stay, declined to take a position in the then-current impasse between the two sides over whether Israel alone or the two sides together should determine the size and placement of the areas to be handed over by Israel in its next redeployment. That sounds like an admirably even-handed position for an honest broker. It would be a lot more so if, per impossibile, the Palestinian Authority got anything like the billions of U.S. foreign aid annually transferred to Tel Aviv.

• Nazareth. You’ve probably read or heard about the squabbles over the building of a mosque close to the Church of the Annunciation. Both Christian and Muslim sources said the flare-up in Nazareth was an aberration, that the two groups get along famously, and that the Israeli authorities, acting on the ancient Roman strategy, divide et impera, deliberately inflamed the situation. Could be true, but I didn’t think they proved their case. An American journalist long resident in the region couldn’t address the Nazareth to-do but cast large doubt on the happy picture of peaceful ecumenical relations between Christians and Muslims; the militants among the latter, he said, often give Christians a bad time.

• The future. So what’s going to happen? Damifino. Damifanybodynoes. Our most optimistic source was our Jordanian guru, a cultivated and convincing cosmopolite; he cited polls showing strong majorities among both peoples favoring continuation of the peace process, and he detects a gradual shift in Israeli public opinion toward a more benign view of Palestinian aspirations. A reporter for Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading daily, who writes solely and sympathetically about the Palestinians, says she gets almost no feedback from her readers, no matter what she writes; she thinks Israelis are ill-informed about and mostly indifferent to the situation of their cousins. The Catholic pastor in Bir Zeit said the dominant mood among his people is not revolutionary fervor but apathy and disillusionment, accounting for the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land, where they’re already a tiny minority. A number of our interlocutors, maybe most of them, reported growing Arab anger not only toward Ehud Barak (he’s not Benjamin Netanyahu, but neither is he Yitzhak Rabin) but also toward Yasser Arafat, who’s seen as all too willing to give away the store to the Israelis and as anything but democratic in his governance of the Palestinian Authority.

People ask me if I think things have changed greatly over the past three decades. Well, yes. Bethlehem is one big construction site, in preparation for the millennial tourists. I sensed less passion, less wild dreaming, among the Arabs, somewhat more fairness in the Israeli press. I’d love to go back in another thirty years and find greenery flourishing everywhere, along with universal peace and harmony. But, for personal and political reasons, I think that’s about as likely as a reversal of the aging process in my right leg.

Published in the 2000-01-14 issue: 

The late Robert G. Hoyt was senior writer at Commonweal from 1988 to 2002.

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