The Arabs of Palestine

MARTHA GELLHORN, novelist, journalist, and former war correspondent, has recently returned from a journey to the Middle East, where she went to see the "Palestinian Refugee Problem" in terms of real life, real people. Here she reports how the Arab refugees and the Arab Israelis live, and what they say about themselves, their past and their future.

FOR rest and relaxation, together with thousands of locals, I went to the School Sports Day. Fifty thousand refugee children attend school on the Gaza Strip, 98 per cent of the possible school population. In Gaza's spacious stadium, 2000 school children were gathered. They ranged from tiny tots, the Brownies, in berets and ballet-skirted orange uniforms, to boys in running shorts and muscles. They paraded past the governor of the Gaza Strip in the viewing stand, led by girls in colored outfits who formed the Palestine flag. The human flag was followed by the Brownie babies, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, girl gymnasts, and boy gymnasts. "We dressed every one of them," an English UN.RWA official said. "This show costs us about two thousand dollars, but it's worth it. It gives them something to look forward to. They all love it." They, loved it and their admiring families loved it and the public loved it.

The children had marched in earnest stifflegged style. ("Like the British Army," I said. "Like the Egyptian Army," he said.) They then lined up in formation, and a loudspeaker blared out Arabic. Three times the children shouted a unanimous, squeaky but enthusiastic reply to the loudspeaker's commanding male voice.

"What are the cheers for?"

"The first is: 'Long Live a Free Palestine.' The second is: 'Long Live the United Arab Republic.' The third is: 'Long Live Gamal Abdel Nasser.'"

I stayed to see the white-clad girl gymnasts, as graceful as a field of Isadora Duncans, doing lovely swaying motions with blue gauze handkerchiefs.

The Vocational Training School at Gaza is a freshly painted group of buildings, with well-kept lawns, flower borders, scrubbed Spartan self-respecting dormitories, and impressive workshops equipped with the complex machinery that modern life seems to depend on. The boys were on their playing field that afternoon, a holiday, marking white lines for various sporting events to come. A few of them drifted back and wanted to show off every inch of their school. Did they like it here, did they enjoy their work, were they happy? Needless to ask; the answer glowed and shone on them. The graduates of this school find good jobs for which they are trained; amongst its many other parental functions UNRWA operates a placement bureau throughout the Middle East. This is the new generation, the UNRWA graduates, and you find them everywhere in the Arab refugee world. They have not yet been crippled by exile, regret, or hate, and they may well be the brightest citizens of the Arab future. They are the source of all hope.

Two accidental conversations stick in my memory. Once, lost in the UNRWA compound of offices, I chanced on a pretty, dark secretary, who told me the kind of inside human angle of history which is more interesting than any other. In 1956, when the Israelis took the Gaza Strip, during what they call the Sinai campaign and we call Suez, for short, telephone communication was restored between the Strip and Israel, which is, after all, just across the fields. In the midst of enemy occupation, the secretary's sister-in-law rang up from the small town where she lived in Israel, to have a chat. How was everyone? The sister-in-law reported that they were fine, her husband was doing very well, they had a nice house and no trouble of any kind. The secretary, recalling this family news, said, "I think if we had all stayed where we were, nothing would have happened to us. All this would not have come about. And what is it for? My children have never seen Palestine. I tell them; and in every school, every minute, they are always told. But when they are grown? The people who knew Palestine will die, and the young ones--will they be interested?"

The second memorable talk took place at The Sewing Center. The Sewing Center is another of UNRWA's camp inventions, and it is self-supporting. UNRWA Sewing Centers teach dressmaking and new uses for traditional Palestinian embroidery--vast tablecloths and sets of napkins, blouses, skirts, which. sell at good prices to local customers and to city specialty shops. Hundreds of refugee girls earn small wages and stave off boredom, while learning a trade. The Gaza center was managed by a bustling cheerful plump Palestinian refugee, who would be taken for a bustling cheerful plump young Jewess in any Western country; but, of course, Arabs and Jews are the same race, Semites. The young manageress showed me massive tablecloths (which none of us would be grand enough to own or get washed), and she praised her girls, who sat on a long porch, embroidering, flattered, giggling.

It was as clear as if she wore a sign, but I asked anyhow: "You're happy, aren't you?"

"I have a nice husband, and two children, and a comfortable house. I like my work very much; it is very interesting. Yes. We are happy." And she smiled. Such a smile. The world isn't lost, not even on the Gaza Strip.

Most of the Christian Arab refugees live scattered around Gaza in rented private houses. A few Christian families asked for free government land at the edge of a Muslim camp, the usual free allotment of building materials from UNRWA, borrowed extra money, and built their own houses with small well-tended gardens. My UNRWA guide, himself a Greek Orthodox Arab, took me to visit one of these trim, respectable self-made homes, belonging to a family he had known before in Jaffa.

The old mother was half blind; the recurrence of eye disease is a Middle Eastern, not a refugee affliction. My guide and this family had not seen each other for some time, and immediately after their first greeting, the old woman wept with incurable grief and was consoled, gently, but as if he had done so often before, by my guide. He explained: this family had suffered a great tragedy. One of the sons was killed by shellfire, in Jaffa.

I report this because it was the only family I met where an actual human being was known to be dead. Here, at last, the infallible witness testified; and here this death, thirteen years old, was mourned as if it had come upon them yesterday. My UNRWA guide behaved as if this case were unique and deserved the aching pity which everyone feels for those who have lost a loved member of the family in war.

I left Gaza, wishing that I could take all the young people with me, and not to Palestine, but out into a wider world. Their destiny should not be to go back, but to go forth. They need exactly the opposite of what the Jews need. There is plenty of room for both needs.

OFFICIALLY, over 600,000 Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, more than in the other three "host countries" put together. But legally there is no such thing as a refugee in Jordan. The refugees are full citizens of Jordan; they have every right and privilege and opportunity that a born Jordanian has. Many of the Palestine Jordanians are contented and have made good lives, despite the limitations that a hot, barren, undeveloped country places on all its inhabitants.

Much of the barrenness and poverty could have been corrected by a scheme for the use of the waters of the Jordan River, to irrigate land now wasted. Eric Johnston, who was President Eisenhower's special representative to implement this life-giving plan, finally reported: "After two years of discussion, technical experts of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria agreed upon every important detail of a unified Jordan plan. But in October 1955 it was rejected for political reasons at a meeting of the Arab League."

Judging by the refugees I saw in Jericho, in camps outside Jerusalem, in Jerusalem itself, the boon of citizenship fosters sanity. The emotional climate in Jordan is noticeably different from that of the Gaza Strip. A school principal stated that children are taught the history of Palestine, "without politics." Exactly what this means, I cannot say. In Jordan, a refugee's education and self-reliance showed at once in his politics. The better educated, the more able do not waste their time on thoughts of violent revenge, and give their loyalty to King Hussein. The more ignorant and less competent nourish themselves with a passion for Nasser, war, and Return.

Two men, living next door to each other in a camp outside Jerusalem, aptly illustrate this difference in personality and politics. The camp watchman, who lived in a new little UNRWA house which was already a pigsty, with empty sardine tins on the floor, a filthy yard, rags for bedding, announced, "We were evicted by force, and so we will return. Led by Nasser and Hussein and all the Arab leaders." His neighbor, an old man, had cleared the stony ground around his house and made a flourishing vegetable garden. Inside, his courtyard you could hardly move for the rows of drying laundry. He did not have a word to say about war or force or Arab leaders. He said that he would rather starve to death than not give his grandchildren education. "As long as I live and can work, my grandson will go to the university."

The largest Jericho camp is run by an objectionable tyrant, yet its cleanliness was nearly Swiss. "I gave them six thousand trees," said the refugee-tyrant, speaking in his capacity of God. "Five years ago, the Muktars [the village leaders] would not let me give the people trees; they said if they plant trees, the people will never want to go home." Now trees rise over the walls that separate the little houses, and more trees are to be distributed. An inexhaustible supply of clean water flows from twenty-one water points. Forty thousand people live here in solid dwellings, under the stern eye of their tyrant; bird-fast children play in the streets.

"How is your name? Are you well? Good-by! Good night! Hello, leddy!" The children chirped and circled; the tyrant tried roughly to shout them off. One boy, determined to have his say, presented me with a whole English sentence.

He took me to his home, four airy rooms (one lined with chairs for visiting), a neat yard, presided over by a smiling serene-faced mother, very proud of her son who could speak alone in a foreign language to a foreign guest. He told me, slowly, of his life, his family, and his ambitions. He was thirteen and had studied English here for two years, in school. He had never talked English with anyone before, except his teacher. After this encounter, I visited some English classes in another camp, to watch the miracle in the making. The boy wants to become a teacher.

"In this country?" I asked, waiting for the expected cry, "No! In my country! Palestine!"

"No, not in this country, in Jerusalem or Amman."

So finally I realized, as I should have all along, that "country" means town or village; when the Arab peasant refugees talk of their country--even if they happen to be in it, as they are here -they are talking about their own village, their birthplace. The boy's mind had gone no farther than the big cities of the only country he knows; his mind may travel much farther than that. The highest ambition of all the best students is to become a teacher or a doctor. Teachers and doctors are needed throughout the world, and the Arab world needs them intensely.

Jordan has a Vocational Training School also, as happy and hopeful as the school in Gaza. Here I forgathered with a class of budding plumbers, another set of citizens the world can well use. They were very merry in their blue work clothes and greasy hands, and full of plans for the future. One wished to go to Kuwait, one to America. One boy said he wanted to plumb in Palestine. The youngest and smallest of them, in a curiously wise voice--both bored and dismissive--said, "Oh, all that will take a long time." None of them was interested enough to go on with it.

The only place that looked as I originally expected refugee life to look was in the Jordanian part of divided Jerusalem, in the old Ghetto. Jews had festered in those lightless rat holes, jammed among the ancient stones, for longer than one can imagine; for thirteen years, Arab refugees have endured the same hideous life. This is medieval misery and squalor; nothing like it exists in the modern world.

From a fetid passageway, a straight-backed, cleanly dressed, handsome boy bounded into the cobbled alley street. He took the arm of his teacher, who happened to be my guide that day; they were good friends. He was the star pupil of his class, Where could he possibly study? In the street, the boy said, anywhere outside. He has known no other home than a single damp room, a dungeon, where he lives with his bedridden grandfather, his parents, and a brother.

"All the boys from here are good boys," the teacher said, and his amazement showed in his voice. "And very witty." He meant "intelligent," I later discovered.

Did the UNRWA Director know of this vile slum? No, said the camp leader. I hurried off to ask why UNRWA allowed human beings to live in such revolting squalor. Whereupon I was informed that the Director had visited the Jerusalem Ghetto within two weeks of taking on his job. UNRWA had tried, at various times, to move these refugees, who refused to go because they preferred living inside the city. But now, since their birth rate had risen at such lightning speed, they were more than ready to leave, and within the year they would be settled in a new camp outside Jerusalem. There were two more dreadful refugee slums in the "host countries" -- I did not see either; these were the only subhuman living conditions, and it was not UNRWA's fault they continued. They would, in time, be eradicated.

Despite all difficulties, UNRWA runs a welfare state; no other exists in the Arab Middle East. "The refugee has a net under him; the local population has none." Quote from an UNRWA official. It should be stated that the UNRWA personnel loves its Arab charges, which is not only right but essential. You cannot help those you do not cherish.

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